Albemarle hit-and-run case demonstrates restorative justice
Two years after its inception, a criminal diversion program in the Albemarle County and Charlottesville court systems is building healing after people have been wronged or hurt. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.
In January of 2022, a pilot program of restorative justice began. In criminal cases where there was specific harm done by one person to another – if the victim, offender, prosecutor, and defense attorney all agreed – the case could be diverted out of the courts to a restorative justice initiative.
ERIN CAMPBELL: There are way more human beings out there than you'd expect who just want to sit with the person who harmed them and to ask the hard questions. "Why did you choose me?" You know, "was it anything that I did?"
Erin Campbell is the co-director of Central Virginia Community Justice, the organization that formed to conduct these restorative justice processes.
CAMPBELL: And they want to tell the person exactly how it impacted them. And then sometimes they want to offer them compassion and creative solutions.
One recent case modeled what those creative solutions can look like. It all began last February, when Albemarle County native Jesse Morris, a stone mason and construction worker, was driving down Buffalo River Road in Earlysville –
JESSE MORRIS: It was getting late. … I wanted to make sure the Batteries Plus store was still open, and I was typing in the GPS on this little straightaway, and –
He didn't see Doug Ford on the shoulder of the road, where the immigration attorney was roller skiing – a sport similar to cross-country skiing, but with wheels on the ends of each ski.
DOUG FORD: And I heard it, and it was kind of like, this is a dead straightaway, so he's going to see me. There's no oncoming traffic. … And the next thing I know, I'm in the ditch.
At first, Morris thought –
MORRIS: "I hit a deer." And then when I realized what happened, it was, I kind of, I panicked before I thought about my actions.
FORD: I was feeling it was intentional. … He sped away.
Several drivers and bystanders stopped to help Ford, who had sustained injuries on –
FORD: Basically, my whole left side from my ankle, two rib fractures, an elbow fracture, and a … multiple fracture of the scapula.
MORRIS: I came back to the house and I was praying for him, and I just, I wanted to go back but I didn't know how to approach it, you know, how to go back. … Plus, I got my kids 50-50, so I was thinking that my ex was probably going to get full custody because all of that happened.
Morris laid low, worried about losing custody of his 11-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son. Ford underwent surgery on his elbow and took about a month to be able to walk again. Law enforcement worked for weeks to track down the blue-and-white pickup truck that had fled the scene, and finally found Morris through an anonymous tip.
He was charged with a felony hit-and-run and two misdemeanors, but Ford wanted this case to have a broader impact on public safety than would come from just sending him to jail. Morris agreed to do a restorative justice process. He hoped that, in addition to preserving his custody arrangement, he could also keep his firearm rights for deer hunting. He met with the Community Justice facilitators, and prepared to sit down with Ford.
MORRIS: Yeah, I was definitely nervous. … It kind of struck me how nice he actually is. Most people wouldn't respond the way he did. [chuckles] I told him, I said, "I wish we would have met another way instead of going through all of this!"
Fritz Hudson was one of their facilitators. He said both parties have to learn to talk to one another with empathy in this kind of process.
FRITZ HUDSON: First we get to know them, and we do that separately by talking with each of them at some depth. Sometimes getting to know their family … their larger community and friends … and then, finally, getting them together and letting them hash out what could be done to repair the harm and prevent it from happening.
Ford said his feelings about the hit-and-run had changed when he found out it had been an accident.
FORD: I don't know, it wasn't that big of a deal. … I worked for Physicians for Human Rights, and I participated in exhumations of mass graves of genocide in Bosnia, so I've seen real dark, evil, bad stuff, and it just became pretty apparent before we were in the room together that it wasn't intentional, you know. It was a mistake. So, how do we move on from there?
They came to an agreement. Morris would write a letter detailing what he did and the dangers of distracted driving, and give 25 public presentations. So far, he has talks scheduled at a church and driver's ed classes. The prosecutors let Morris plead guilty to one misdemeanor and have his jail sentence suspended.
SHANNON NEAL: Part of the parties' agreement was this truth-telling component.
Shannon Neal is an assistant commonwealth's attorney for Albemarle County. She studied restorative justice before becoming a lawyer, and helped launch this program. In the past two years, nearly 40 cases have been diverted to the program – from assault and battery to caretaker embezzlement. Neal said the program has benefited both victims and public safety –
NEAL: … both in terms of, the harmed party having an experience where they feel heard and included and understand what happened in a way that they feel safer. … The person who caused harm not only learns to take responsibility for what they did, but I think they also learn to take responsibility for what they do next.
Both the prosecutor's office and Central Virginia Community Justice want to see more cases go through this process, with the hope that everyone involved – the person harmed, the person responsible, and the community at large – emerge, in some way, restored.