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A Florida family opted for restorative justice over the death penalty for the man who murdered their mom. What happened next made them question the very meaning of justice. By Eli Hager. O n Sept. Because we have. So you should too. Sitting on a windowsill, Dana, 42, clutched a framed poster of a space shuttle that she planned to show the man. Repeatedly abandoned as a toddler with no food for days at a time. Found wandering on a highway at age 4. Sibling died in a house fire. Sexually abused, whipped with extension cords, placed in more than 20 different foster homes.

Your life has valuehe hoped to tell him. After a while, their father, Mike, ed them and their other siblings, Rachel, 43, and Rockey, Wearing his Sunday suit, Mike could hardly keep his head up as he walked through security—the violent killing of his wife of 41 years had hobbled him physically and mentally.

Even after a police investigation and a year of pretrial hearings, he was plagued by questions. Did you have an accomplice? Did Debbie try to get away? Why us?

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The defendant had agreed to tell Mike and his family everything about the murder and to plead guilty. In return, he would be spared the death penalty and instead spend his life in prison—but only if the Lileses felt satisfied that he had told the truth. J acksonville, the murder capital of Florida, seems an unlikely place to find a more merciful response to homicide.

Under the leadership of Angela Corey, the state attorney there from throughhundreds of children—disproportionately Black children—were charged as adults, and more people were sent to death row than in nearly any other jurisdiction in the country. When you lose someone to homicide, I p you think about that loss every day of your life. One of the cases that she took over from Corey was the murder of Shelby Faraha year-old of Arab descent who was shot in the head during a robbery at the cellphone store where she worked. At first, Darlene Farah had wanted to sneak a gun into court to kill Rhodes herself.

From the time he was a baby, Rhodes lived with his grandmother—his mother had abandoned him, and his father was periodically imprisoned. The bus driver who took him to day care reported that the boy would often cry from hunger. At a group home where he spent much of his childhood, he was sexually abused by another boy and by a counselor. Farah wanted to tell Rhodes that although his history did not justify his crime, she in many ways saw him as a victim too. When Nelson took office, eager to resolve the three-year-old case, she dropped the death penalty against Rhodes and reluctantly agreed to let Farah and her family meet with him.

The conversation lasted an hour. Farah asked Rhodes to describe what her daughter looked like, to make sure that he cared enough to remember. He did, perfectly. Farah told him about the kind of person Shelby had been.

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At the end, they prayed together. Rhodes told me in s from prison, where he is serving a life sentence, that his conversations with Farah—and her willingness to forgive him—have motivated him to mentor younger people incarcerated alongside him. For Nelson, the case was a revelation. InSered founded Common Justice, a Brooklyn-based organization that was the first in the nation to offer victim-guided alternatives to incarceration for adults charged with violent felonies such as assault and robbery, though not murder. With approval from the local prosecutor and court, her group brings victims and perpetrators together to agree on the damage done by a crime and how to fix it.

Defendants may be required to take anger-management or drug-treatment courses to reduce their danger to the community, or to attend school, perform community service, or help the victim in concrete ways, such as repairing things that were broken during the crime. At least 35 states have tried various forms of restorative justice, as have cities from Baltimore to Oakland, California.

Usually, restorative justice is used for nonviolent crimes, especially those committed by juveniles, or to help victims heal when the legal proceedings are over, not as a replacement for prosecution. The Washington, D. D eborah and Michael Liles grew up in a working-class section of north Jacksonville.

After the high-school sweethearts married inMike worked at a bank and later helped run a day-laborer business, while Debbie stayed home with their growing family. Debbie and Mike Liles raised their five children in Jacksonville. She initially stayed home with the kids, before becoming a music teacher in the public schools. Eventually, Debbie became a music teacher in the public schools, buying Lonely guy in maurices seeks beautiful employee for her classroom and staging musicals with props from yard sales. Jacksonville, like many other parts of the country, was racially segregated by de.

Before long, crime began to rise. One day inwhile Debbie was home alone, a stranger knocked at the door looking for yard work. She told him that her husband could probably help him, but the man burst in, punching and choking her. He tied her up with her purse strap and a vacuum cord, then left. When police arrived, they found Debbie covered in blood, begging for someone to hug her.

Debbie recovered, but the break-in posed a challenge to their belief in the Christian concept of redemption. Debbie and Mike told media outlets that her assailant, a Black man named Curtis Head who had an extensive rap sheet of other burglaries, should spend the rest of his life in prison. So far, he has.

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Mike also became the president of the local chapter of Stop Turning Out Prisoners, a group that lobbied for tough-on-crime legislation. The ordeal did not prompt the Lileses to move. Despite another burglary and thefts of their bicycles, CDs from their car, and, somehow, an entire gazebo from their yard, Debbie and Mike stayed in the Castle. And they stayed as their children moved away to start their own families and careers—Gerald Lonely guy in maurices seeks beautiful employee Michelle chose teaching, like their mother. Lawson, who is Black, had recently finished serving a six-year prison sentence for burglary and was living in a nearby trailer park.

His life had been hard, to put it mildly. As a teenager, he stole to feed his drug habit and repeatedly blacked out—and once had to be hospitalized after an overdose. Lawson found a way in, likely through the back door, and tried to hide when he spotted Debbie. But she saw him. As Lawson later described it to a prosecutor, Debbie grabbed a golf club; he ripped it away from her, chased her down the hall into the kitchen, and beat her with the club until her skull and jaw shattered.

A few hours later, Mike arrived home on his lunch break and noticed that the car was gone and the freezer in the garage was open, food strewn all over the floor. He went inside and saw one of his golf clubs on the kitchen floor. And then he saw the blood, splattered everywhere. When Rachel, the eldest of the Liles children, got the call, she was in the checkout line at the grocery store. When she got there and saw the police tape and the neighbors staring from their porches, she jumped out of the car and started running.

Gerald was talking with one of his students on the phone when he got a voic from his father. When Gerald called him back, he heard him moaning. A ll five children had made it to the Castle that night by the time their mother was carried out in a body bag. Early the next morning, still in shock, they headed to the house again. It was the first of many times over the coming months that they would feel marginalized in the pursuit of justice for Debbie.

Determined to help find the killer, the siblings hatched a plan. When they asked for footage at a funeral home, a service was under way. They sat through the funeral and then the proprietors helped them go through the recording—making the children late for a community vigil held for their mom. The family helped the police piece together enough video to show the Buick pulling into the trailer park where Lawson lived.

Earlier that morning, Mike had punched a parking meter. After the proceedings began, Rachel saw a defendant with bandages covering his face and hoped it was Lawson, because that would mean Debbie had at least gotten a few blows in.

When Lawson finally entered the courtroom, the Liles siblings recognized him, having spent hours staring at his Facebook and booking photos online. Mike and Gerald were surprised by how short and meek he looked in person. Adam Lawson reacts to Liles family videos at a February court hearing. First Coast News. Gerald, who has read extensively about racial bias in the criminal-justice system, still believes that capital punishment is justified for certain murders. For Gerald, Michelle, and Dana, attending every hearing meant driving for hours to Jacksonville and leaving their spouses and children for days at a time.

Months were spent debating whether Lawson was mentally fit to stand trial. He did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. Still, they were shushed by bailiffs for crying and for whispering to one another in the courtroom, and at times were astounded by the lack of consideration they got.

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