Helping crime victims live on

Sunday, August 30, 1998

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

When the woman finally looked into the eyes of the man who murdered her only child, tears started rolling down her face. A trickle. Then a flood. She didn't bother to wipe them away, didn't even notice.

She had been waiting for this moment for seven years. Seven years of autopsy reports and police transcripts. Scrambling for information in the middle of a nightmare. A guilty plea, so no trial. And no details.

"I never really knew exactly what happened to my boy. Or why."

They sat -- this woman and the prisoner -- in a tiny room, on either side of a narrow table. "We could have reached across that table and touched each other," she says. But they didn't.

She pushed a photograph of her son across the table. "I wanted him to know what he took from me."

Everything.

A story of murder

"I'm sorry." The man looked shocked. He hadn't planned to say that. "I think about this every day of my life."

She was not interested in how it made him feel. "You have not told me anything," she insisted. "Tell me what happened that night."

And then he told the woman the details of her son's murder. He was looking for someone who'd stolen money from him, he said. He got the wrong guy. Mistaken identity, he said.

The man yelled at her son, who was sitting in the car she had given to him just a few days before -- on his 20th birthday. When the youth didn't reply, just stared at him blankly, the man shot him. Then he ran away.

Too sick to be a lie

She believed every word she was hearing. "I was digging for something in his eyes. I think you can tell when somebody is lying to you when you look at their eyes. Besides," she says,"his story was just so sick it had to be real."

He didn't have to talk to her. Ever. Their conversation, an elaborately choreographed meeting, is part of Ohio's Victim-Offender Dialogue program. And before anybody's conservative knee jerks, it is not for the benefit of the offender.

It is for the victim.

The felon has to agree to participate. No pressure. No incentives.

In eight years, when this man is up for a parole hearing, the meeting with his victim's mother will not be part of the record. He will not be able to point to this moment as proof that he is repentant. Or rehabilitated.

It is not to make peace between people, but offers a way for victims to find peace for themselves. It starts with a phone call to Victim Services in Columbus. (1-888-842-8464). Karin Ho, who runs the program, says she thinks rehabilitation is a byproduct.

Ohio and Texas are part of a study to track results over the next two years. Ms. Ho says she believes that it forces the criminal to face what he did. In human terms.

"I will never be a grandmother now," the woman told her son's murderer. "You took that away from me. I go to work. Go to church. I don't have any other life. You took my spirit."

Helen Magers, director of programming at the new River City Correctional Center, was the mediator. She met three times with the man and woman before they were put in that room together. It's a long process.

"It was powerful," Ms. Magers says. "But she told me it helped her get rid of the hate. And begin living again."

Did it? I asked the woman.

"Yes," she said tersely. "But I still have a way to go."

Can I tell your story?

"You can but please don't use my name. I just cannot stand the thought of my name or my son's on another murder story. I don't want to be in the spotlight anymore. I am trying so hard to heal."

She thinks maybe it has started.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com

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