In the Shadow of Death: Restorative Justice and Death Row Families

In the Shadow of Death: Restorative Justice and Death Row Families

In the Shadow of Death: Restorative Justice and Death Row Families

In the Shadow of Death: Restorative Justice and Death Row Families


The press called Martin's actions a "crime spree." Already convicted of armed robbery, Martin was facing the death penalty. In less than two weeks the jury would decide his fate. Terrified that his son would be sentenced to die, Phillip did the only thing he felt he could do: in an act of faith and desperation in his garage with the car exhaust running, Phillip made the consummate sacrifice to spare his son the ultimate punishment. Ironically, his suicide presented Martin's with another chance at life; the jury, moved by Martin's loss, spared his life.

Phillip's story-like those of the other parents, siblings, children, and cousins chronicled in this book-vividly illustrates the precarious position family members of capital offenders occupy in the criminal justice system. At once outsiders and victims, they live in the shadow of death, crushed by trauma, grief, and helplessness. In this penetrating account of guilt and innocence, shame and triumph, devastating loss and ultimate redemption, the voices of these family members add a new dimension to debates about capital punishment and how communities can prevent and address crime.

Restorative justice theory, which views violent crime as an extreme violation of relationships; searches for ways to hold offenders accountable; and meets the needs of victims and communities torn apart by the crime, organizes these narratives and integrates offenders' families into the process of transforming conflict and promoting justice and healing for all. What emerges from hundreds of hours' worth of in-depth interviews with family members of offenders and victims, legal teams, and leaders in the abolition and restorative justice movements is a vision of justice strongly rooted in the social fabric of communities. Showing that forgiveness and recovery are possible in the wake of even the most heinous crimes, while holding victims' stories sacred, this eye-opening book bridges the pain of living in the shadow of death with the possibility of a reparative form of justice.

Anyone working with victims, offenders, and their families-from lawyers and social workers to mediators and activists-will find this riveting work indispensable to their efforts.


On a warm, humid Texas evening in October 1998, I stood by and watched as the state of Texas executed Jonathan Wayne Nobles. I was present mainly because, after corresponding with Jon for 11 years (along with a half dozen other inmates on death rows around the country), I was simply unprepared and unable to refuse the last request of a condemned man.

Jon was not one of the wrongfully convicted inmates that you've heard so much about in recent years. He was guilty as hell of a crime that he himself described as heinous and made no excuses for—the brutal, senseless killings of Kelley Farquhar and Mitzi Johnson-Nalley.

Standing on my left in the death chamber, holding my hand so tightly that I couldn't feel my fingertips for hours afterward, was Jon's aunt, Dona Hucka, the only blood relative who had ever come to visit him while he was in prison. His mother never made the trip. In fact she never even wrote, and Jon had only managed to locate her and say goodbye by phone the night before. Dona had driven all night from Oklahoma to be there.

A little over a year later I was back in Huntsville, outside the prison this time (thank God for small favors). The occasion was the execution of Larry Robison, and the hand that I held was that of Larry's mother, Lois, a retired third-grade schoolteacher.

Larry had begun behaving erratically and hearing voices when he was barely out of his teens. The doctors at the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Rusk, Texas, told Lois that though her son was indeed a paranoid schizophrenic, he was not a candidate for committal to any state-run mental health facility because he hadn't exhibited any violent behavior. A few years later Larry finally qualified. He killed his boyfriend and all four occupants of the house next door, including an 11-year-old boy. Another branch of the same Texas government cited “the rights of victims” when they found Larry competent to stand trial and sentenced him to death.

When it was all over Lois cried on my shoulder for a minute or two and then took a deep breath and wiped her face. Then she and her husband, Ken, almost immediately turned their attention to another prison facility on the other side of town where Lois's surviving son was serving a sentence for . . .

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