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Sonoma's Martina Lutz Schneider to share stage with victims who have found forgiveness

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Restorative Justice

At noon on Sunday, Jan. 13, Martina Lutz Schneider will lead a discussion on the healing aspects of restorative justice, with three people victimized by serious felonies on the panel to share what forgiveness has meant in their lives. The event takes place in Burlingame Hall at the First Congregational Church, at 252 W. Spain St., from noon to 2 p.m.

The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world by far. Greater, even, than the totalitarian states of North Korea or China.

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice, in 2016 the United States had 2.3 million people incarcerated in 5,885 state, federal, juvenile, local and military prisons. Twenty-five percent of the world’s incarcerated individuals are held by a country that comprises less than 5 percent of the earth’s total population.

America, it would seem, holds to the efficacy of incarceration. America likes to lock ‘em up.

But Martina Lutz Schneider, a facilitator of victim-offender dialogs (VOD) for the Restorative Justice Ahimsa Collective, has a more nuanced perspective on crime.

“We distinguish between the deed and the doer,” Lutz Schneider said. “A person can do a terrible thing without forever being a terrible person.”

Restorative justice is a model that reforms offenders who have caused serious harm through an intensive process that culminates in accountability. Simultaneously, victims are mentored on a separate journey, with forgiveness the optimal outcome. When both parties have made appropriate progress, and if the crime victim desires contact, they are brought together for a facilitated Victim Offender Dialogue (VOD), face-to-face on different sides of the same crime.

“The offenders have to really face what they did then. Nothing is more impactful than having to look a crying mother in the eye,” Lutz Schneider said.

On Sunday, Jan. 13, Lutz Schneider will lead a discussion on the healing aspects of restorative justice, with three people victimized by serious felonies on the panel to share what forgiveness has meant in their lives. The event takes place in Burlingame Hall at the First Congregational Church, at 252 W. Spain St.

“The ability to move from anger to forgiveness is relevant to all levels of harm and conflict,” Lutz Schneider said. “Anger is poisonous. Forgiveness is the pinnacle of spiritual maturity.”

PATTY O’REILLY

Patty O’Reilly is the artistic director of the Sonoma Conservatory of Dance, and has lived in Sonoma for 26 years. In April of 2004, when her daughters were just 12 and 7, mere weeks from her 13th wedding anniversary, an alcoholic got into his car and pulled onto Mark West Springs Road.

Patty’s husband, Danny O’Reilly, an avid cyclist, was pedaling home when Mike Albertson hit him at full speed. Danny was thrown 25 feet into high weeds and brush, but Albertson didn’t alert first responders to his whereabouts.

“The police were cleaning up, thinking they were responding to a solo spinout when one of them saw Danny’s bike,” O’Reilly said. “That haunted me for a long time. He was almost left there, and I hated Mike Albertson for that.”

Alberston’s blood alcohol was more than three times the legal limit, and he was eventually sentenced to 13.5 years. But O’Reilly was in a prison of her own by then, too, shattered by grief and rage.

“One minute you’re a functioning family, the next I’m a tense single mother screaming at my own kids. I hated Mike Albertson. It would have been fine with me if he were locked up forever,” O’Reilly said.

A few months after Danny died, O’Reilly had a particularly bad parenting moment. “I lost it,” she said. “And at that moment I realized there was a poison inside me. I knew I had to forgive Mike Albertson for my own sake, but even more for my daughters. I was so broken in that moment that I was able to forgive him almost instantaneously, not because of any strength that I had, but because I didn’t have any strength.”

Restorative Justice

At noon on Sunday, Jan. 13, Martina Lutz Schneider will lead a discussion on the healing aspects of restorative justice, with three people victimized by serious felonies on the panel to share what forgiveness has meant in their lives. The event takes place in Burlingame Hall at the First Congregational Church, at 252 W. Spain St., from noon to 2 p.m.

O’Reilly then engaged in the VOD training, and Albertson — from Folsom Prison — undertook training at his end. They met in September of 2006, and though O’Reilly nearly pulled out of the encounter, the experience ended up transforming her pain. “I found out that the word vengeance comes from ancient Greek and it means ‘full application of justice.’ The dialogue was my vengeance in its original sense. It allowed me to tell Mike Albertson how his actions impacted us. It didn’t make the pain go away. I still cried a lot. I still got upset and angry, but I didn’t have the poison anymore.”

THOMAS MORGAN

Thomas Morgan was a 40-year-old patrol officer in Kern County in 1997 when a call of “shots fired” came through his radio. He and a trainee officer sped toward the location, where they apprehended two juveniles in a suspicious vehicle. The trainee removed one boy from the passenger seat, but then lost control of the situation.

“My partner yelled something about a gun, and Jason Samuel took off running,” Morgan said. “I started after him.”

The perpetrator ran toward a near residence, and Morgan found himself between two bad options. “It was dark. He was facing away. But he was forcing his way into a residence. If I fired and missed, the bullet was going into the residence,” Morgan said. “My only option was to confront. I closed. We grappled.” And then Morgan felt Samuel’s hands move toward his belt.

Morgan saw a flash of brilliant white light and felt himself go totally numb.

Samuel had jammed the muzzle of Morgan’s Derringer shotgun into his neck and sent 130 lead pellets through Morgan’s throat.

Two weeks later, he woke up in the UCLA Medical Center.

Somehow, Morgan never felt enmity towards his attacker. “He didn’t know me. It was hard for me to take the shooting personally,” Morgan said. “But my wife and loved ones didn’t feel that way at all.”

For the next 20 years, Morgan’s wife Christy was nearly paralyzed with anger, unable to move past that one terrible moment. When Morgan got involved with the VOD program, his wife would prove to be the true beneficiary. “My sweet wife,” Morgan said, his voice still throttled and raw decades later. “She identified Jason as a soulless, bloodthirsty killer. She was afraid to be in the same room.”

But as they worked through the restorative justice process, VOD facilitator Lutz Schneider showed her a photo of Samuel, and somehow that picture changed everything. “When she saw that photo a light went on, and she identified with him as a human being. That photo began this transition for her from hate into love.”

Morgan, who is now a lawyer, has advocated for Samuel’s release at several parole hearings. He will do so again in March. “This kid’s life was a horrifying tragedy. Father dead. Mom on drugs. Couldn’t read or write. Bounced through a broken foster care system from home to home to home. He was 17! His world view wasn’t fully formed when he was arrested and thrown away. He’s a different human being today.”

ELLE DOWDY

In 2009, Elle Dowdy was at home in Orlando, Florida, when she got the call every parent dreads. “My 24-year-old daughter, Emily, who had moved to (Pacific Beach) California the year before, was walking home to her apartment when a person in a pickup truck hit her in the crosswalk.”

Emily was thrown 16 feet by the impact, and died 24 hours later.

For most of the next year, Dowdy felt numb. “I was basically in shock. I put him out of my mind. I never called him by his name,” Dowdy said of Alan Mabry, the then-45-year-old drunk driver who killed Emily. “It becomes your new normal. You learn how to live with it. You learn how to live in spite of it, actually.”

Dowdy flew back and forth from Florida to California for months, going through the motions of criminal prosecution. “It didn’t really hit me until he was sentenced, and I had to just continue waking up every day without her.”

But then the grief rolled over her like a freight train. ”It was everything you can imagine, and a hundred times worse,” Dowdy said.

Dowdy’s daughter had been a free spirit, a bohemian soul enchanted by words. “She wrote poetry. She would call me with new poems and I would end up in tears. She was beautiful,” Dowdy said softly.

Mabrey had a long criminal history. He was a severe alcoholic with multiple priors. The judge gave him a sentence of 19 to life.

And then Dowdy’s life, or some paler version of it, went on.

One day, stuck in traffic, a car caught her eye. “It was a bumper sticker that said ‘Love Wins.’ I needed something to hold onto and decided I could do worse than hold onto the idea that love wins. I decided to make her death count for something. To make a difference, even for myself. I decided to keep my heart soft,” Dowdy said.

Dowdy will meet Mabrey in a few weeks. They’ve been writing to each other for some time. “He’s taken full responsibility. He calls it murder. I can hardly wrap my mind around the kind of courage it will take for him to face me. But we are linked forever. I need to know him. I’ve decided to make Emily’s death count for something. I’ve decided I have no choice but to let love win.”

Contact Kate at kate.williams@sonomanew.com.