“You’re welcome,” David replies. “I’m really glad you requested this. It’s a privilege to be here.” What follows next are words he spent 23 years of his life trying to avoid. “I take full responsibility. I’m guilty. Feel free to ask me whatever you want. This is your day.”
Katherine’s hard eyes are watering now. Wilson, who sits between the two and whose square, brown-framed glasses hang on the edge of his nose, appears nervous. But he moves the conversation along, asking questions, prompting the two participants to touch on the areas that he has dissected and gone over with each of them during the preparative meetings.
Wilson is brutally clear about his intentions and biases: He’s there for the survivor, who, he tells me, is boxed in by a legal process that restricts his or her voice during the legal process. The survivor’s only real chance to address an offender comes at the end of a trial, through a victim-impact statement. That’s assuming, of course, that there is a trial, or that the survivor is old enough to address the court. In Katherine’s case, for example, her family waited until she was in her teens before telling her how her mother had died. That’s why these dialogues are important, Wilson tells me: It forces offenders to confront their crimes in a way they haven’t had to.
“A victimization or violation is not a misunderstanding,” Wilson says. “It is something horrible and traumatizing. I don’t care about reconciliation. I don’t care about forgiveness. I just care that the victim gets to be heard and the offender understands what the victim is saying and is prepared to feel a level of accountability. That’s all I want.”
As the dialogue continues, Wilson soon pushes things into difficult territory. He takes out a beautiful color print, the last image ever taken of Katherine with her mom. It’s a summer scene: mother in jeans, a red shirt, and red bandanna stretched across the top of her cropped hair; daughter smiling, mother’s arm around her, as the two sit in front of an old barn. Wilson cautions David about what he’s going to show him. “This is gonna hurt,” Wilson tells David. Wilson reaches across the table and holds Katherine’s arm. He reveals the image. David stares at the print and breaks down in tears. “This is what she doesn’t have anymore,” Wilson says.
Then Wilson silently rolls out other photographs: one of David as he was admitted to prison, and another of him at the age of 10, his baby sister in his arms. It’s a simple but powerful display, and it sets up one of the important story arcs that Katherine is here to explore: how a bubbly, smiling little boy became the man who took her mother’s life. Wilson lets the situation play out; he says nothing. Finally, Katherine speaks up. “I want to know why,” she says. “What was going on in your life that could lead to something that horrible?”
David delves into his life story: a tough neighborhood; peer pressure; drug use; shoplifting. And then a night when he spotted a young woman and her friend walking to their car in a lonely parking lot. Katherine stares at him, the fingers of her left hand fiddling with her lips as she hears David describe the robbery and then the stabbing.
When he finishes, there’s a long pause. Katherine looks down at the table. “And you took her purse anyway?” she asks. David is choking up again. Until now, Katherine’s words have been measured. She’s posed careful, specific questions about his intentions, but now she lets things go. “She loved me in a way you will never know,” she says forcefully. She collects herself: “You took all that away from me.” Her eyes are now fixed on him: “I wish she’d beaten you until she fell down dead. … I have everything from her up until my sixth birthday, and then there’s nothing. You took all that away from me.”
The hours go by. David explains how the last 23 years have changed him. Katherine listens, sometimes looking at him, other times down at the table. She unleashes more anger. “I always wondered where God was when my mother was killed,” she says. “I lost Him, but I came crawling back to Him, no thanks to you.”
In time, there’s a break in Katherine’s tone. The more she speaks, the softer her voice. She loses her edge. Her anger dissipates. “I know this is hard for you,” David tells her.
“It’s hard for you, too,” she says.
At the end, Katherine hands David a copy of a scrapbook she’s made about her mother’s life. It’s his to keep. And then she tells the man who killed her mother that if he gets out of prison, she’ll be there for moral support: “I want to be there for you.” The two then get up from the table and exchange a long hug. It’s an unexpected part of the script. On tape, Wilson leans back in his chair, both hands atop his head. He looks relieved. He looks triumphant. So does Katherine.
Today Wilson watches the screen with the same amazement he felt when he saw the scene play out live in April 2001. He stops the tape. “She looks different, doesn’t she?” he says. “It’s all about having been heard by him–getting a chance to say to him, ‘You took my mother away from me; you took God away from me.’ That’s what happens when you get a chance to do that. That’s what makes me do what I do.”
Part of that includes telling others about his work. Take this afternoon, a late winter day at the University of Maine at Orono. After a storm, a foot of fresh snow plays beautifully against the blue sky. Wilson is here to speak to about 20 undergraduates. Being on the road is a regular thing for him these days, driving around New England, ducking in and out of airports in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Texas, where he regularly leads VOD sessions. Currently he’s working on five cases, plus training sessions in Kansas and Louisiana.
Wilson likes being in the classroom. Today’s group, a “peace studies” class of freshmen and sophomores, trickles into a second-floor classroom just before 2:00. Several are clicking away on laptops as Wilson and the professor wheel a TV into the room, to little notice. Finally, one woman, a blonde with square glasses and wearing a pink, polka-dotted UMaine sweatshirt, looks up and sees the set. “So, we’re watching a movie, right?” she asks. “Well, how soon are we watching it? Because if it’s not too soon, I’d like to open the blinds. I’m really, really sleepy, and this is the longest day of the week for me.”