top of page
  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

Day 227: Oct. 29th: Restorative justice: A man kills, then sits in a circle with his victim’s family


I heard from Dan Lambert this morning that our dear sister, friend, wise woman and lover of all living things Tess Hagemann has been admitted to Kaiser hospital suffering from Covid-19. Please lift her and Bill up in your thoughts and prayers.

I've been attending a ZOOM conference on Restorative Justice called Harm, Healing, and Human Dignity: A Catholic Conference on Restorative.

Here's a story I found about how it all works.

Philosophy professor, Young Kun Kim

Matthew Lee looked into the tearful eyes of the son of a man he had murdered. It was Nov. 19, 2019, in a conference room at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office Family Justice Center, a year-and-a-half after Mother’s Day, 2018, when the 50-year-old Lee had followed a beloved 87-year-old Lehman College political philosophy professor, Young Kun Kim, into a bank vestibule on the Upper West Side.

Kim withdrew $300 from the ATM, and Lee tried to grab the money. Kim resisted and the two struggled. Lee managed to grab the cash, then pushed Kim to the floor and ran out of the vestibule.

The professor hit his head when he fell and was taken to the hospital, where he fell into a coma and died four days later.

Lee was arrested, charged and indicted for murder in the second degree under “felony murder” law — which says that it’s murder when someone is killed during the commission of a felony — carrying with it a sentence of between 15 and 25 years to life in prison.

Lee had never been arrested before and had a job working security. At the time of the murder he was behind on his rent, had 51 cents in his bank account and wasn’t getting paid for another four days.

The professor’s bereft family, neighbors and students wanted answers. His son, Jinsoo Kim, wanted assurances that it wouldn’t happen again, and above all an apology, later explaining, “my biggest fear was that [Lee] would try to pretend that [he] didn’t do it.”

All of these factors combined to make this case an ideal opportunity for restorative justice — the centuries-old practice in which a person who has been harmed speaks with the person who committed that harm. Restorative justice holds great promise for the vital work of the criminal justice reform movement, and should be carefully and thoughtfully expanded for use as part of the solution to address violent crime in our community.

Inspired by this idea, in something of a leap of faith for all, instead of a trial, following an agreement between the Manhattan prosecutor and Lee’s lawyer, last month the two men sat together in a circle with the victim’s daughter-in-law, Lee’s sister and a restorative justice coordinator, each speaking in turn.

The son told the group that after his father’s murder, “I think the hardest thing is that we have a daughter and she never got to meet my dad…she reminds me of him a lot. She’s really, really stubborn and my dad was too…Having them not be able to meet each other, that’s probably the thing that hurts the most.”

The victim’s daughter-in-law said her father-in-law had long aspired to write a book called “Small Happiness,” which he would now never have the chance to write.

Lee’s sister talked about how much she had missed her brother since his arrest and incarceration. She vividly described the regular walks they had taken together before the murder, saying, “We normally go for walks in Central Park, we get together, we make plans to go to church together, things like that, and I miss that. I went to Central Park earlier but it’s not the same.”

She noted that a friend of hers from church had been a colleague of the late Kim. The group marveled at this coincidence.

Lee apologized to everyone assembled, and wished out loud that he could take back his crime. “But I know I can’t bring your father back, and I am very sorry.”

He spoke about the experience of the restorative justice circle itself: “To have to bring everyone together right now and see everyone cry and shed tears … it’s going to stick with me for the rest of the days of my life.” The group occasionally sat in brief silence, momentarily overwhelmed by the gravity of their shared undertaking.

The younger Kim addressed Lee: “I had this vision of you as a monster. And meeting you in person it’s clear that you’re not. Just having you admit the truth it’s clear that you’re not.”

The victim’s son particularly appreciated that the restorative justice circle had been his family’s decision, telling Lee “it was our decision to do this, we could have said no, and I think having that, having made that decision, having this opportunity to talk to you and hear that you’re sorry, … it will probably make me heal more than anything else.” He added that “the hurt may never go away, who knows? But the hate I can control.”

The criminal-justice response to most crimes, violent crimes especially, looks starkly different.

Restorative justice values social bonds and relationships. Unlike traditional criminal justice responses, rooted in the notion that a crime is a wrongdoing against the state, restorative justice conceives of crime as a harm committed by one person against another, and rejects a punitive response in favor of a reconciliation between the involved parties, as well as their community.

Also, restorative justice values the voices of all the parties affected by crime, and harnesses the healing and transformative power of emotions like compassion and empathy to encourage re-engagement and humanization. The term can include a range of practices, some of which involve direct reconciliation between two people, and some of which include other community members, either in addition to or as a proxy for the harmed person.

These undertakings are moderated by trained professional facilitators, who prepare all participants in advance for the experience. While formal apologies and forgiveness often occur, they are not prerequisites for engaging in a restorative practice.

This is what happened in downtown Manhattan just two weeks ago. In a remarkable show of compassion, during their restorative circle, the late professor’s daughter-in-law told Lee, “We think that the criminal justice system is very broken and we’ve been thinking about you at Rikers. We were hoping that you were okay…There’s just a cascade of suffering that’s happened because of this.”

By way of goodbye, the professor’s son reflected, “This is helping. More than I thought. This is real.” He then turned to Lee and his sister, saying “I can picture you two walking in the park together. Remember that. The park is still there.”



DEC 08, 2019

20 views0 comments
bottom of page