It was a 2 a.m. phone call in 2003 that shattered Therese Bartholomew’s life.
It would be years before the Charlotte resident could begin to push back against the crushing grief that accompanied the news that Steve Leone, her brother, confidant and best friend, had been murdered at a nightclub in South Carolina. The killer, Karl Staton, was apprehended immediately, but ultimately pleaded to a lesser charge, serving a sentence of just eight and half years. Ironically, the very person who inflicted the devastating loss upon Bartholomew and her family would play a vital role in her healing, an experience that has prompted Bartholomew to become one of the country’s most outspoken advocates of restorative justice.
“I had no idea that there was anything called restorative justice. I just knew that I saw humanity in him,” Bartholomew confesses in “The Final Gift,” a documentary film she produced that chronicles her healing experience. “…The second I walked out of that prison (after meeting with Staton), I felt lighter, I felt like something had been lifted off my shoulders.”
Today, Bartholomew and her husband Doug, a co-executive producer of the film, crisscross the nation, telling Bartholomew’s deeply personal story – which she also recounts in the memoir “Coffee Shop God” – and extolling the virtues of restorative justice, which Bartholomew says has the power to heal by putting the control back into the hands of the victim.
“Restorative justice, in a tiny, tiny sound bite, really says that crime damages relationships,” she told Winston-Salem State University Justice Studies students last week after they viewed the film. “It hurts people, right? And communities. So what can we do to come to a place of healing?”
For Bartholomew, the answer was the book, where she first began to pour out her pain, the film, which began as a series of video diaries and blossomed into a full fledged documentary, and sitting across the table from Staton in a South Carolina prison, where she laid bare the anguish that he had caused her family.
Though she says she had forgiven Staton long before she set foot in the prison, being able to look him in the eye and tell him how her life had been wrecked by his actions was therapeutic for her. While each case is unique, Bartholomew firmly believes that putting a human face on crime can be helpful for both the victim and the perpetrator.
“The problem with our criminal justice system is we create abstracts and adversaries. The victim becomes abstract to the offender – the offender really doesn’t see what he or she has done,” she stated. “…In my case, I really needed to sit in a room … with this person who had hurt me so much , and my family. I needed to see that abstract turn into something real. For me, that was the critical piece.”
The adversarial nature of the American justice system takes the focus away from the victim in many cases, and robs both victim and perpetrator of the opportunity to heal and learn from the experience, Bartholomew said. When those who are adversely affected by a crime don’t find adequate ways to understand and heal from the experience, they become what Bartholomew calls “forever victims,” often living out the rest of their lives under the shadow of one horrific act. Bartholomew, who obtained a master’s degree in criminal justice from UNC Charlotte after Leone’s murder, said offenders who don’t have to face the havoc that they have created are often desensitized to the true cost of their actions.
“It’s really hard for people to understand that this is smart justice; it’s not being soft on crime,” she said. “It’s being victim centered and looking at the true impact of crime.”
Bartholomew will be the first to assert that nothing could repair the agony she still feels at the loss of Leone, with whom Bartholomew was so close that she regarded him as a part of herself. Still, she said she is heartened that, through her grief, she is finding ways to help others who have suffered similar fates as an advocate of restorative justice.
“I would never choose for my brother to be shot in the chest. I would take him back any second of any day. I would trade him for every possible thing in my life, …But there’s something good coming out of all of this.”
Joy Saunders, a senior justice studies major at WSSU, said she was impressed by Bartholomew’s courageous quest to reclaim her life after the tragedy. Saunders, an aspiring prosecutor, said the concept of restorative justice makes a lot of sense to her.
“I think it’s a great concept, something that we should continue to do, not even just with criminal matters, but just being able to forgive in general,” remarked the 21 year-old. “That could stop a lot of crime in itself, if people weren’t so vengeful.”
Dr. Jack Monell, an assistant professor in the department, said he read Bartholomew’s book “many moons ago,” and was deeply impacted by her story.
“As a criminologist and as a social worker, it’s emotional,” he said of viewing the film. “In practice, this is what we hope and strive for, helping victims heal.”
For more information about Bartholomew and her work, visit www.theresebartholomew.com.