"This arrangement, brokered by Jacksonville’s newly elected state attorney, was essentially unprecedented in the history of homicide prosecutions in the United States." So writes Eli Hager for the Marshall Project in a lengthy piece that looks at the use of restorative justice, in which victims and perpetrators are brought together to have a dialogue. It's generally used in cases of nonviolent crimes and often "to help victims heal when the legal proceedings are over, not as a replacement for prosecution." But what Hager looks at are some exceptions in Florida, driven by Jacksonville State Attorney Melissa Nelson. Since assuming the role in 2016, she put restorative justice to use in two murder cases. And in the summer of 2018, she presented it as an option in a third: the murder of Debbie Liles.
On March 23, 2017, the music teacher was home alone when 24-year-old Adam Christopher Lawson Jr. broke in, took the golf club she was defending herself with, beat her to death, and stole items from the home. Her five children made a plea for area businesses to provide surveillance video, spied the stolen Buick, and helped cops arrest Lawson less than two weeks later. They initially wanted him put to death. But as the hearings stretched on and their questions remained unanswered, Nelson told them this: Lawson would plead guilty, tell them everything, and receive a life sentence instead of death—so long as the Lileses "felt satisfied that he had told the truth," per Hager. And Liles' husband of 41 years had questions: Why their home? Did Debbie try to flee? Was anyone else involved? The family showed up ready. But then Lawson clamed up and changed his mind. (Read the full story to learn why one of Liles' kids now says "restorative justice is what killed our dad.")