Va. Lawmakers Consider Giving Victims Right to Meet Attackers

Rape victim wants to meet attacker to know she truly forgives him

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Debbie Smith doesn't have many questions for the man who dragged her from her Williamsburg, Va., home into the woods, where he repeatedly raped her. She just needs to know if the forgiveness she's convinced herself she has for him is real.

    She believes the only way she can know that is to visit him in prison, where she can look him in the eyes. The problem is that unlike more than two dozen other states, Virginia gives victims like Smith little chance to meet their attackers once they're in prison.

    This year, Virginia lawmakers are considering two proposals to change that. One would give victims the right to meet their offender and the second would create a restorative justice program that includes victim-offender mediation.

    Both measures cleared their respective chambers last week.

    Currently, victims of violent crimes in Virginia seeking a face-to-face meeting with their attackers must obtain permission from the Department of Corrections. Written requests are approved or rejected based on the type of crime committed, the inmate's behavior and security level, mental health issues and the reason for the visit, said corrections spokesman Larry Traylor.

    On average, the department receives 10 to 15 such requests a year, and half are approved, Traylor said.

    But the department doesn't apply those same rules to other inmate visits. It's possible, under department visitation policies, for a stranger to visit an inmate if the person fills out the required form and gets on the inmate's visitation list.

    "We don't want a crime victim to have to jump through more hoops than a newspaper reporter or friend of a friend or all the other people who may come for visiting hours," said Delegate Robert Bell, a Republican and former prosecutor who sponsored the victim visitation rights bill after hearing Smith's story.

    For most victims of violent crime, sitting down with the offender is the only chance they'll ever have to get important questions answered, said Janine Geske, a retired judge who is director of the restorative justice program at Marquette University Law School. The program helps facilitate victim-offender meetings in Wisconsin.

    "People who talk about closure, that's nonsense. There's no closure to these crimes -- there's life before and there's life after and it's never going to be like it was before," Geske said.

    "But they talk about getting these questions that are floating around in their head answered."

    Smith said her motive in meeting Norman Jimmerson, the man convicted of attacking her, is not to get an apology or an explanation.

    "I have to know that I can sit across from this man and know that fear is gone and know that forgiveness is there, that it's not just the passage of time that has dulled it or the distance," she said.

    "Peace can't be real peace if it's constantly questioning itself."

    Smith was making a banana split dessert to take to a friend's house for dinner as her husband, a police lieutenant, was asleep upstairs. She stepped outside to check the dryer vent, and when she came back inside a man grabbed her from behind, showed her a baseball bat and threatened to kill her if she screamed.

    He then forced her into the woods behind her home, where he assaulted her.

    That was March of 1989. Six and a half years went by before a DNA hit pointed to Jimmerson, who was already serving time for robbing and abducting two women in 1989. He was convicted in her attack and now is serving two life sentences.

    The Associated Press typically does not name victims of sexual assaults, but Smith gave permission to have her name used.

    Smith wrote to Jimmerson in 2005, and he agreed to meet with her. After two years working with a private mediator to prepare for the meeting, the Department of Corrections denied the visit, saying it was not in her best interest.

    She called the governor's office, who tried to facilitate a meeting, but by then the department said Jimmerson had changed his mind about meeting her.

    As a criminal court judge, Geske said she originally thought such meetings would be futile but realized the benefit they could give victims and families.

    It also can help offenders confront the human cost of what they've done, said Pat Nolan, vice president of Prison Fellowship, a national prison ministry.

    Most criminals depersonalize their crime, but meeting with the victim makes it real, he said. Many then work out ways to pay restitution or otherwise atone for the crime.

    "What victims want more than anything is all the excuses and lying and explanations to stop," said Nolan, who was a legislator in California for 15 years before going to prison for campaign contribution violations and getting involved in Prison Fellowship.

    Most of the laws concerning victims deal with notification, but the criminal justice system rarely does anything else for victims, said Lisa Rea, president of the California-based Justice & Reconciliation Project.

    "Often victims of violent crime have been used as political footballs in a way to pass legislation that's quote-unquote tougher on crime, but does it really do anything to help the victims?" she said.

    Nolan said it is stunning that some states don't allow the meetings. Even states that do often put up barriers that make it difficult. If Virginia passed an open meeting policy, he said other states likely would follow.

    Smith understands that everybody's way of getting through trauma is different, and that some victims don't want to meet their attackers. But she said that should be their choice.

    "We all have to find our own path, and I know that this would be the end of my path -- to be able to truly feel that I have been the victor," she said.