Longform

How victim rights became a juggernaut shaping spending, laws and the future of punishment

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Lewis doesn't expect the LWOP issue to go away. While she says she's sympathetic to the idea that many people who committed horrific crimes as juveniles were themselves abused, it rankles her when people refer to offenders as "victims" of a broken system. In her view, there's a very distinct line between perpetrators and victims.

"It's not that I don't want to build consensus," Lewis says. "But with some people, I just disagree with where they're going."

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Sharletta Evans left her two young sons and their teen cousin in the car while she went into a relative's house in northeast Denver. It was 1995, and the neighborhood had been plagued by recent drive-bys. Evans had come to retrieve another child and take him out of the line of fire.

Gangbangers cruising the area mistook her car for the ride of some rivals. They opened fire on the car and the duplex while Evans was inside. One of the bullets claimed her youngest, Casson Xavier Evans, better known as Biscuit, as he slept in the back of the parked car. He was three years old.

The shooters, fifteen-year-old Paul Littlejohn and sixteen-year-old Raymond Johnson, were sentenced to life without parole. Biscuit's mother was sentenced to grief and sorrow and trying to find a path through something that didn't make sense at all.

The victim advocates did what they could. "They made sure my family understood the charges and that we knew whenever there was a hearing," Evans recalls. "There was victim compensation that helped us bury our son."

But after the killers were put away, the support apparatus moved on to the next case. And everyone seemed to expect Evans to move on, too. "You're getting full attention, and then you're just kind of left," she says.

Evans became involved in anti-violence campaigns and started a program for at-risk kids called RedCross BlueShield Gang Prevention. She struggled with the bitterness of her loss and sought to forgive the two boys, now men, who had taken her son from her. A turning point came when Littlejohn's mother asked if she could come see her.

"She came to me and took responsibility," Evans says. "She expressed how her actions, her lack of parenting, aided in his decision-making. She apologized for him and for herself."

The visit convinced Evans that she wasn't wasting her time in her gang-prevention efforts, which focused on promoting parenting and addressing the "hole" in the life of the typical gangbanger. "It let me know I was on the right track," she explains. "It was a huge part of my healing."

Both of the shooters have written letters from prison expressing remorse for the killing. Two years ago, Evans decided that she wanted to meet Raymond Johnson face-to-face: "I felt I had reached a cap in my healing, and I needed to go further. This was something I needed to do for myself, my family and my community, as well, which has been affected by this. I would like it to be effective for him, too, so he can be the most productive person he can be in his situation."

But until the passage of the restorative-justice bill this year, there was no process in Colorado's adult justice system to allow such meetings. Evans testified in support of the bill. Among the opponents who showed up that day was Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey. It was "very challenging" and uncomfortable, Evans says, to find herself on the opposite side of the fence from the man who put her son's killers away.

Evans hopes to be able to sit down and talk to Johnson soon. But it's not clear when that might actually happen; the Department of Corrections has a list of hundreds of victims who want to meet their offenders and no funds to pay for the costs of the meetings, including transportation and facilitators. In order to get the bill passed, Representative Lee and other sponsors agreed to cut its fiscal impacts to the bone.

"I pulled a rabbit out of a hat," Lee says. "It was all in the spirit of compromise, with no money attached."

Lee says he's working with the DOC to get the pilot program going. He has dozens of restorative-justice facilitators who've agreed to provide services for free and says prison officials have been "very forthcoming" in their concerns. "I don't know if there's institutional opposition to restorative justice," he says. "There is a lack of understanding. People are afraid of the unknown."

Many victim groups have welcomed the arrival of such a program, even if the funding is meager. "It's not a program for everybody, but it should be there for people who need it," Cannata says. "It has to be a controlled environment, or it will damage both parties. If it helps victims move on, that would be a good thing. And if it influences offenders so that they never commit another crime, so much the better."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast