Restorative justice: victim's family and offender find peace
Christine Fairweather's life was cut short by a stupid prank gone terribly wrong. She was killed on a wet and stormy night in August 2014 when she stopped to remove metal fencing barriers deliberately placed on the road as she drove home to Hawera, in Taranaki.
In February 2016, Daneil George Gavin, 22, Samuel Lance Hawkins, 20, and Jason John Campbell, 19, pleaded guilty to causing Fairweather's death. Their appearances in court followed a three-month police investigation into who was responsible for blocking State Highway 3 between Normanby and Hawera that August 2 night.
While Gavin remained in the car, Hawkins and Campbell had got out and placed the barriers, being used by contractors to protect holes dug to lay cable, across the road, blocking off both lanes. They then got back in the car and drove away.
Christine Fairweather was killed when a prank went wrong. PHOTO: ROSS GIBLIN/FAIRFAX NZ
The ute driver, Geoff Douglas Hart, pleaded guilty to careless driving causing death and was sentenced to 100 hours' community work in January 2015.
In April 2016 Justice Matthew Muir handed down sentences of home detention and community service to Gavin, Hawkins and Campbell.
In March last year Fairweather's family met two of the young men involved in her death, through restorative justice. This is the story of their meetings with one of the men, Daneil Gavin.
FINDING A VOICE
A photo of Christine Fairweather rests on a wooden table. Her glasses, mangled in the incident that killed her, lie next to it. Her sister, Di Coleman, absentmindedly twists a bracelet of Christine's that she has worn since the night she died.
Coleman was in New Plymouth to meet Gavin, one of the men responsible for Christine's death.
Coleman had previously sat in on restorative justice conferences as a social worker. She just never expected to attend one as a victim.
"I had seen the strength of them. I saw the human-ness in the process. And if something good comes from Christine's death, then how can I not be a part of this process?" she asks.
"We can't change what happened but what we can do as a community is move forward. If [Gavin] can move forward and not do anything illegal again, so there are no more victims, then that will honour Christine's death.
"If he can see that I don't hate him, that I forgive him, we can move on. I want him to move on because otherwise there are no winners."
Coleman brushes off the idea she's being magnanimous.
Forgiveness is not a selfless act, she says. "Forgiveness is quite selfish. You have to forgive or you can't move on. It's to our advantage to be able to forgive."
Coleman met Gavin in March last year. She wanted to look him in the eye. She wanted to hear directly from him what happened that night. She wanted answers.
She had felt a disconnect to the offenders during the court process.
"I felt utterly powerless in the court system. It's a very foreign environment. Restorative justice is personal. [Offenders] don't have lawyers there to speak for them, they have to answer the questions themselves."
Actually being able to say to Gavin how she felt was important, she says.
She didn't get that chance in court. She did read out her victim impact statement but it had been looked at and edited, she says.
"There were some things I couldn't say. It was very limiting. Here I could say anything I needed to say. I could look at him and have an expectation that he would communicate with me. It was very cathartic."
She can understand why people might not want to engage in the process. A victim might not be happy with the outcome, she says, but they might be pleased they finally had a voice.
And she gets why an offender might not want to front up. Facing a victim or a victim's loved ones is scary and it's hard.
Before meeting him, she knew Gavin was remorseful. She had read his letter to the family apologising for his part in Christine's senseless death.
"I saw his struggles. I would rather be on my side of the fence than his because he has to now live with this for the rest of his life."
Detractors of the process will say offenders might agree to a conference to get a lighter sentence. Coleman is not convinced.
"An extra three months or three weeks isn't going to bring my sister back. In a crime you pretty much know what they are going to get anyway.
"I truly feel that restorative justice not only helps the victims but also helps the offenders.
"Because you are actually dealing with the people who are hurt. They have to face it. It's about consequences.
"They have to stand up and confront the actions they took."
The guilt for his part in causing the death of Fairweather sat heavily on Gavin's shoulders.
For three months he kept his terrible secret – that he and two other young men were responsible for putting out the metal barriers that Christine was removing when she was struck and killed..
News of Fairweather's death and how it had occurred reached him the following day but he kept quiet. When he finally came clean it was a relief – but it would take meeting Fairweather's family to turn his life around.
"I thought long and hard about the restorative justice meeting. I thought how hard it would be to sit there and listen to what they had to say about the whole incident."
Before the restorative justice conference he had trouble sleeping. He was depressed, on edge all the time, and scared one of Christine's family members would confront him on the street. He went over and over what he could have done differently. What if he had made different decisions that night?
"After the restorative justice meeting everything was a lot clearer. I stopped living in fear."
Daneil Gavin kept his secret hidden for three months. PHOTO: ANDY JACKSON/FAIRFAX NZ
Facing Fairweather's sister, Di Coleman, was one of the hardest things he has ever done, he recalls, still overcome with emotion at the memory of their meeting.
"Looking at Di, I felt disgust with myself having not been honest from the start. I remember crying. I don't cry very often but I cried a lot that day.
"I was able to hear what sort of a person Christine was and how her death affected everyone.
"It was very hard hearing that. I just felt so devastated. She sounded like such a lovely person. It was one of the hardest moments of my life, sitting there listening to what everyone was saying about her.
"When Di told me she forgives me I broke down in tears. That hit hard. It didn't make me feel I was in the clear but it made me feel like I had progressed and I could move on knowing that they knew what really happened."
Gavin also had a restorative justice conference with Geoff Hart, driver of the ute that struck Fairweather, and her husband, John.
Hearing Hart talk about what he went through that night was traumatic, he says.
Hart, who had been distracted by the weather conditions and Fairweather's parked car, admitted the charge of careless driving causing death.
But the Fairweather family consider him another victim. The volunteer firefighter did all he could to try to help her at the scene. Ambulance crew had to pull him off her as he tried to revive her by administering CPR.
"He was a victim as well," says Gavin. "Poor bugger was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because of our stupid mistake he will have to suffer for the rest of his life.
"Hearing how it affected him made me feel disgusted and really disappointed in myself."
Gavin knows some will believe his motivation for taking part in restorative justice was just about trying to get somewhere in front of a judge. But he insists it is nothing to do with getting a reduction in his sentence. It's to do with the people involved, he says.
"I owed it to them to come to the conference – to them and to Christine – to front up and I'm very thankful they gave me that opportunity.
"Doing this made me feel more of a man than a boy. Manning up and confronting the situation.
"Other people might think I've done this to make people feel sorry for me but I don't want that. I just went in and faced up.
"It's made me feel I can front up to other things in life. Instead of trying to hide the truth, just be honest from the start. Take responsibility."
PEACE OF MIND
John Fairweather's arm bears a tattooed image of his wife, Christine. Her death after 28 years of marriage has all but destroyed him.
He's also had to battle since then with bowel cancer and general ill health.
His wife would do anything for anyone, he says. She had a heart of gold.
A mother of two children of her own, she suffered the terrible loss of one son when he was four. She was stepmother to three other kids and was known to have taken in a gaggle of children in need over the years.
She volunteered at rest homes, the hospice shop in Hawera and at the local art gallery.
John Fairweather bears a tattooed image of his wife. PHOTO: SIMON O'CONNOR/FAIRFAX NZ
A quiet person, she had an enormously forgiving nature. It is partly that which spurred John to seek a restorative justice conference with the men who caused her death.
The first he heard of the accident was when police knocked on his door about 1am on August 3.
"I could see the outline of the police officers at the door and I knew something was wrong. They explained Christine had been in a real bad accident so I asked which hospital she was in and they said, 'Sorry mate, she's gone. It was fatal'.
"I never got a chance to say goodbye."
Fairweather, 64, took to the radio airwaves begging those responsible for putting the barriers up to turn themselves in. His anger at the three young men involved was accentuated by their lack of courage in coming forward immediately after the accident.
He went to the restorative justice conference for peace of mind.
"I wanted to find out why the boys did this. I wanted peace of mind. It was driving me damn mad, why did they do it? It was just stupidity."
Despite his anger, he says he approached the meeting with Gavin open-minded and ready to forgive.
"I wondered how I would react. What would I do? What would I say? I stopped and thought to myself, what would Christine say? I had to speak for her and myself.
"I needed to look at him. I needed to have the one-on-one. I needed to know who he was. I was looking for genuine regret and I found it in him."
When Gavin walked into the room he looked like a "deer in the headlights", Fairweather says. "He looked scared to hell.
"I told him straight, I forgive him, that I didn't hold this against him. I felt like I was speaking for Christine because I know she would have forgiven him.
"I think Daneil got a shock at that. I think he realised that if you man up and tell the truth it's not so bad."
THE TOUGHEST PUNISHMENT
Christine Fairweather's death has had a lasting impact on ute driver Geoff Hart.
"It doesn't go away. It's always sitting with you. At some stage of every day I think about it."
John Fairweather went to see Hart after the accident and asked him to support him at the restorative justice conference with Gavin.
Hart, a 30-year-old agricultural field rep, says he was dubious about restorative justice. "I think some guys do see it as a box-tick to get their sentence down, or make it look like they are making an effort without too much meaning.
"But it took a lot of guts for Daneil to walk in and face John and I. That gained a bit of my respect. That means a lot more to me than any punishment that could be dished out to him."
Geoff Hart says he thinks about the incident every day. PHOTO: SIMON O'CONNOR/FAIRFAX NZ
The hardest part of the conference was just turning up, not knowing how it was going to turn out, Hart says.
But it must be pretty hard for the offender as well as the victim. "A guy Daneil's age having to sit there with the victims – if you're a half-decent person that can be quite daunting, seeing what your actions have caused."
When Hart first laid eyes on Gavin at the conference, which was managed by a facilitator, he says a part of him just wanted to jump up and grab him. He managed his way through it because he wanted a result at the end of it.
"My biggest fear was me being able to hold it together. I was still a bit angry with some of the parties involved. But the success of the process depends on those taking part.
"I could tell as soon as Daneil entered the room that he was remorseful. I don't think you can fake that.
"At the end we said, 'You have to get on with you life and put this behind you. That's what we're all trying to do'."
Hart says his meeting with Gavin released him from his anger. Hearing the full story of what happened allowed him to move on.
"It meant a lot to me to hear what happened that night.
"I've been a young guy as well. We have all done things that could have gone another way. I told him that. But the fact that he has come clean and manned up to it, faced up to what he had done, was what meant the most to me."
Pamela Jensen was always interested in dispute resolution. PHOTO: ANDY JACKSON/FAIRFAX NZ
Restorative justice facilitator Pamela Jensen was a lawyer in criminal defence work and family and employment law but was always interested in dispute resolution – how people get through the tough stuff.
She saw the criminal jurisdiction as shallow – a dance about who did what and what their punishment would be.
"A lawyer's job is to minimise it all, the prosecuting authority want to make it look as bad as they can and never the twain shall meet. But it's not about what happens when people leave. Nothing has really changed for the victim or the offender.
"Seeing recidivist offending I thought, what can make a difference?"
She trained as a RJ facilitator in 2000 and is now a trustee of the Taranaki Restorative Justice Trust.
Restorative justice is a voluntary and private process.
Jensen talks about the three ticks before a conference can take place: The offender has to want to do it; the victim has to want to do it; and the facilitator has to believe it's the right thing to do.
At all costs they want to avoid re-victimisation, blame-shifting and minimising.
With the range of people they deal with, Jensen says they are often stunned by the way people open up.
"The toughest guy, the most timid elderly woman – they open up and show emotion, human kindness and compassion towards one another.
"There's that moment in most restorative justice conferences – we call it the magic – where you can sense in the room that there's been a shift for both parties, almost like a release.
"For the offender it can be that sense of them feeling empathy … That they can lift up their head and move from a place of shame to a place of acceptance of responsibility and accountability and that's all been achieved in a respectful conversation.
"For the victim, they have reclaimed their place. They have had a chance to be heard about the impact on them."
A number of pre-conferences take place to make sure the meeting between offender and victim (or victim's family) is appropriate. In the case of Daneil Gavin's restorative justice conference with Christine Fairweather's family, it took 10 pre-conferences before the meeting went ahead.
It's rare for the victim to come away from a conference without something positive from the experience, she says.
"I do not mean that their needs are always met in a conference but I haven't heard anyone say 'I wish I hadn't done that'."
There have been times where an offender has not shown the remorse the victim hoped for but sometimes the latter just needs to say what is on their mind and it doesn't necessarily matter what the offender says or does, she says.
"It's most unusual for a victim to come away from a conference without getting something positive out of it."
In the past three years, Jensen has only stopped two conferences from going ahead and she has never encountered violent interaction from either victim or offender.
Family violence cases make up about 80 per cent of conferences she deals with. Restorative justice conferences were an effective way of addressing the problem that was prolific in New Zealand, she says.
She says detractors of restorative justice think you walk in, have a nice cup of tea, a few tears and hugs, a 'sorry' and a 'that's OK, mate'.
"It goes way deeper than that.
"It's not about going in and saying sorry. An apology comes way down the line in a conference. It's about going in and talking and listening and acknowledging the harm they have caused.
"We are not setting ourselves up to be clinical therapists. We are restorative justice practitioners. We are people who believe that this is a way that connectedness can recur in our community when harm occurs. We believe in that humanity and dignity."
RESTORATIVE JUSTICE - THE FACTS
- Restorative justice conferences are face-to-face meetings during which victims can tell offenders how the crime affected them, and offenders can take personal responsibility for their actions. The process, run by trained facilitators, only takes place with the consent of both the victim and the offender.
- Restorative justice will take place before sentencing, at which time the judge will consider any agreements made during the conference.
- The impact on recidivism is significant. Ministry of Justice figures for the period 2008-13 show that offenders who engaged in restorative justice had a 15 per cent lower rate of reoffending in the following 12 months than offenders who did not do so. The ministry estimates that 620 fewer crimes were committed in 2014-15 as a result of restorative justice.
- Figures for 2015 show the number of cases referred for a restorative justice assessment tripled from 3998 in 2014 (from which 1838 conferences took place) to 12,113 (from which 2777 conferences took place).
- From July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2016, 2981 conferences took place out of 12,518 referrals.
- The increases follow a change to the Sentencing Act 2002 in December 2014, which requires courts to refer eligible cases for an assessment to see whether restorative justice is appropriate.
- It applies if an offender has pleaded guilty, if there are one or more victims of the offence and if no restorative justice process has previously happened in relation to the offending.
- A 2011 survey conducted by the Ministry of Justice found that 77 per cent of victims were satisfied with their overall experience of restorative justice, before, during and after the conference. The survey also found that 80 per cent of victims would recommend restorative justice to others.
- Restorative justice appeared to help reduce reoffending across many offence types, including violence, property abuse/damage and dishonesty. However, the reoffending rate was not lower for participants who committed a driving causing death/injury offence.
- Restorative justice in family violence cases has increased. They made up 46 per cent of all conferences completed in 2015-16, an increase from 2014-15 when 34 per cent of court-referred conferences were family violence cases.
- In August 2016, the Ministry of Justice announced an increase in funding of $16.2 million over the next four years.
- While the number of referrals has increased significantly, the conversion into conferences has dropped by more than 20 per cent. This was due to a number of factors, including a bedding-in of the new opt-out clause in the Sentencing Act, Restorative Practices Aotearoa general manager Mike Hinton says.
- Courts needed to be more circumspect in which cases were being referred and there was a need for more trained facilitators in specialist areas, in particular, domestic violence cases. There were currently not enough to meet the demand, Hinton says.
Source: Ministry of Justice and New Zealand Law Society