'What Is Justice?'
State Program Brings Victims and Offenders Face to Face
Martha Early, a middle-aged single mother, and Andrew Papke, the chaplain's assistant, sit silently across from each other in the chapel, their hands clasped tightly across a wooden table. To Early's right sits a stack of pictures of her daughter Beth, killed -- along with her boyfriend, Daniel London -- by a teenage drunken driver in 1996. In front of her sits a well-worn binder bursting with colorful stationery and letters full of memories of Beth; she brought them to share with Andrew. Next to the binder is her Bible.
Early gazes at Papke with a look of calm sadness, while Papke's head hangs solemnly. Seconds turn into minutes, and neither one moves. It seems as if the slightest murmur would send them back to earth, where they will be forced to communicate with words.
Finally, Early squeezes Papke's hand.
"I love you, Andrew," she whispers.
"I love you, too," he answers hoarsely.
Within moments, Papke's arms -- the very same arms that steered a car headlong into Beth Early -- are encircling her mother. After engaging in a brief hug, Martha Early gets ready to begin her three-hour drive back to Austin. Andrew returns to his prison cell at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, where he is serving 40 years for intoxication manslaughter.
Papke and Early's meeting might sound unusual, but since 1994, more than 560 victims of crimes in Texas have requested similar meetings with convicted prisoners who have wronged them or their families. Forty victims have completed these "mediations," offered by the Victim Offender Mediation/ Dialogue program run by the Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice. Initiated during the Nineties by victims of violent crime, VOM/D is based on the notion of "restorative justice:" that healing and rehabilitation are best achieved through direct personal accountability, not systematic retribution.
According to David Doerfler, a former minister who has led VOM/D since its inception, most victims enter the program intending to vent their rage. Yet the insight they gain about themselves and the inmates who wronged them often changes their perspectives. As a victim of violent crime, Doerfler himself has sought mediation: In the late Seventies, a drunken driver killed Doerfler's brother-in-law. A few years later, his seven-month-old daughter was hit by a drunken driver and suffered permanent injuries. Doerfler has tried to track down the driver responsible for harming his daughter in order to request mediation, but has never found him. Due to the lax drunken driving laws of the era, the driver escaped prosecution.
"We tend to have the conception that criminals are mean sons-of-bitches born to kill," says Doerfler, "and if you treat them like animals, that's what you find. However, we create a safe space where they are treated like human beings, and we get something else entirely. The vast majority of victims are taken aback by how remorseful and compassionate they [the offenders] can be."
Still, Early and Papke's reconciliatory experience in the mediation program is rare. Few participants spend their mediation time praying, hugging, and sharing words of love and affection. And many crime victims and offenders never consider participating in the program at all.
Nevertheless, embedded in the tragic story of Daniel London and Beth Early's deaths are lessons about the uncertain nature of healing, justice, and rehabilitation. Beth's parents, Martha and Adrian Early, entered the mediation program and met with Papke on separate occasions. Now divorced, both withstood their grief and anger to attain different degrees of understanding and forgiveness. On the other hand, Jack and Alice London have never considered mediation. Since Daniel's death, they have become tireless advocates for stiffer drunken driving legislation.
The Papke family, also victimized by their son's deadly recklessness, must acknowledge that they may not live to see Andrew a free man. "I feel like I am in prison too," says Andrew's father, Howard. "Part of me is just gone, because I will be dead by the time he gets out."
Finally, there is Andrew Papke, who struggles with what it means to "do the right thing" -- when the only right thing was to never have done it at all.
In the seconds that passed between 10:40 and 10:41pm on June 29, 1996, the lives of Beth Early and Daniel London were reduced to photos, headlines, and other people's memories. In the weeks following that night, anyone who watched the news or read the Austin American-Statesman learned that Daniel London was a skateboarder who "loved unconditionally," and that Beth Early worked at the local dog kennel and "had a lot of friends." Perhaps, as the Londons believe, they would have married, or possibly they would have drifted their separate ways. Either way, the young couple lost any chance to make those choices, or even to begin planning their lives.
A Blue Moon
Beth and Daniel were killed almost instantly, but the circumstances leading up to their deaths originated many years before that balmy night in June. Howard Papke, Andrew's father, says that until his son started drinking heavily, he seemed destined for success. In addition to earning "excellent" grades, Andrew played trombone in the school band and volunteered at the fire department.
Despite his achievements and promising future, however, Andrew started drinking in high school, usually after football games. Peer pressure got the best of him. "I didn't really fit in," he says, "and that is one of the reasons I started drinking -- just to feel like I belonged at high school parties." Eventually, he adds, "I wanted every day to be a weekend."
By 1994 -- his senior year -- Andrew was too caught up in drinking to attend class regularly. Howard Papke, who had expected his son to graduate with honors, worried that his son's repeated absences were taking a toll on his academic performance. Concerned that Andrew wouldn't graduate, Howard called a meeting with the school counselor and principal, who concluded it was impossible that Andrew would be able to catch up and graduate on time.
Yet Andrew never thought he had a problem. "When I thought of an alcoholic, I thought of 50-year-old lawyers with red noses," he says. "I thought it was just a phase I was going through. I felt it was my right to enjoy life while I was young. I was really blind to what was going on."
In the months leading up to his deadly collision with Beth Early and Daniel London's car, Andrew's life spun out of control. Kicking off his internal chaos, ironically, was a drunken-driving accident that took the life of one of his friends. Instead of mourning, Andrew and his friends decided the friend "would just want us to have a big party. Everyone started drinking more."
Shortly thereafter, Andrew's girlfriend Janine learned she was pregnant.
"I would create problems, and then avoid those problems by drinking to escape," says Papke. "It's a vicious cycle. When Janine got pregnant, we decided to have an abortion. I had been coming home late and drunk, and she didn't trust me to be a father. I had a real problem with that, and I chose to deal with that like I dealt with all my other problems. I just drank."
On the morning of June 29, 1996, Papke -- who had spent the previous night partying until 4am -- drove Janine from their North Austin apartment to an abortion clinic across town. Instead of waiting, Andrew recalls, he told Janine he needed to "get some food in his stomach." Shaking and nauseous from alcohol withdrawal, he drove back home and pulled a beer from the fridge. It was 8:45 am.
Andrew continued drinking all day. After making a second crosstown trip to pick up Janine at the clinic, he dropped her off, got back in her car and picked up his friend CJ (Christopher Johnston). Andrew told CJ -- who was also drunk -- to drive around the country so he could just "get away from it all." At some point, he says, CJ ran the car off the road and Andrew took the keys, telling him, "You're not going to wreck my girlfriend's car."
By evening, Papke realized that speeding down rural roads wasn't going to help his frazzled nerves, and he decided to drop off CJ before heading back home. At 10:40pm, they were driving toward CJ's house, down Brodie Lane in far South Austin.
The next moments are forever frozen in Papke's memory.
"All I saw were those headlights, and before I could hit the brake or anything, it was all over," says Papke. "I looked over at CJ, and he was bleeding from everywhere. I started to panic, and threw my weight against the car door and got out. I only saw one person in the other car, and I thought that any minute he would get out and we would call a wrecker and get it all straightened out. At some point, a witness came on the scene, and I acted real drunk and belligerent, yelling and swearing about the such-and-suches that had hit me. It was all surreal at the time, everything was in slow motion. I remember it was a blue moon, and what I thought was transmission fluid was reflecting all over the road."
Only later Papke realized his mistake. "That was blood."
Within hours, the Earlys, the Londons, and the Papkes all knew their lives would never be the same. Martha Early remembers being wakened at 4:30am and being told her daughter was dead.
"I couldn't yell, I couldn't cry," she remembers. "It was just, 'What?'"
"Healing has as many aspects are there are types of people," says David Doerfler of the Victim Offender Mediation/Dialogue program. "It's sloppy business. It just doesn't happen in a 1-2-3 order."
It Takes Time
Martha Early says that after her daughter's burial, she didn't cry for several weeks. Then, when she started to clean her daughter's room, the tears wouldn't stop coming. Only by embracing God and turning to the Bible, she says, did she discover what she would have to do to begin to heal.
"I realized that if I didn't forgive Andrew, I would be bitter and resentful for the rest of my life," she says. "I forgave him in my heart within two months of the accident."
Adrian Early had the opposite reaction. The accident rocked his own faith in God, and he says he hasn't entirely recovered. For the first few months, he never thought much about the drunken driver that had killed his daughter Beth, only that she was gone.
Then one day -- as Adrian puts it -- the anger dam broke. "I was in HEB, buying some groceries," he remembers. "The man in front of me had left his groceries on the belt, and came running back with a 12-pack of beer. Suddenly, I was so furious that I almost grabbed the beer and smashed it on the ground. It took all my strength to hold back."
Alice London, Daniel's stepmother, doesn't remember feeling anger -- just profound sadness. In addition to practicing law -- she is a partner in the same firm as Mayor Kirk Watson -- London was also involved with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) as an attorney helping victims' families recover compensation. She grieved, in part, by working to pass a state law making it illegal for minors to drive with any amount of alcohol in their system.
In November of 1996, Papke was released on bond. His lawyers believed they could prove the accident was not entirely his fault and advised him to plead not guilty. Although he originally agreed, Papke changed his mind before the trial and fired his lawyers. He had convinced himself that it had not been a matter of "if" he would cause an accident -- on that night or another -- but when, and how bad. Consumed by guilt, he couldn't enjoy Thanksgiving dinner with his family. He just couldn't stop thinking about the empty chairs at the family tables of the Londons and Earlys.
At trial in Austin, Papke plead guilty. He didn't pursue a plea bargain, but resigned himself to whatever punishment the jury determined. At the sentencing phase, in April 1997, the prosecution set out to prove that, although Papke did not have any prior DWIs, he was likely to be a repeat offender. The accident wasn't his only crime: He had a prior shoplifting arrest, had been caught with nine ounces of marijuana, and neglected to pay several speeding tickets. Friends who testified at the trial affirmed that on the day of the accident, Andrew had driven like a madman, speeding and swerving through lanes of traffic.
Then Papke himself took the stand -- and contritely confirmed all the prosecution's allegations. "I knew I was going to prison for a long time," Papke later wrote to Martha Early. "But compared to a life of denial and running -- I just couldn't do it."
The jury returned with two 20-year sentences, one for each victim. The judge stacked the two sentences, sending Papke to prison for up to 40 years. By contrast, Reginald Stephey, the teenage drunken driver who was recently convicted in Austin of killing two people and leaving another burned and disfigured, pleaded not guilty and was sentenced to two concurrent seven-year terms; he could be free in three-and-a-half years. Papke, who was also convicted for using a car as a deadly weapon, will have to serve at least 20 years before being eligible for parole.
After the judge read Papke's sentence, Adrian Early stood up with tears in his eyes, went over the young man and embraced him. "Usually attorneys do whatever they can to muddy the water, so there are some questions as to the full extent of the defendant's guilt," Early says. "In Andrew's case, he made it much less painful for us by pleading guilty. But he also made it very clear to the jury that he was completely at fault. It's very unusual for a defendant to take full responsibility, and he got railroaded because of it."
Adrian Early says he found little comfort in Papke's lengthy sentence. The trial had done very little to answer his questions concerning Beth's death, and he didn't believe justice had been served. He heard about VOM/D through Victims Services, and requested mediation.
Doerfler says that Adrian Early's reaction is common. "What is justice?" he asks. "When you start looking closely at all the idiosyncrasies that victims and offenders bring to that question, it starts to get murky real quick. A trial ends up being a contest between attorneys, with victims and offenders really becoming disposable commodities -- so you end up with sentences that do nothing to meet the emotional needs of a victim.
"At the same time," he continues, "offenders are told they are going to pay their debt to society, but what the hell does that mean? Society is affected, sure, but ultimately they have offended against individuals and need to answer to them."
Imprisoned, Andrew agreed to do the mediation and was given the voluminous preparation materials, but a few weeks later dropped out of the program. At first, he was too emotionally distraught to undergo the self-analysis required by the program.
Right Around the Corner
"My prison doctor had me diagnosed as bi-polar, and I was taking a load of anti-depressants," he remembers. "Then I started to think, 'This is the same crap I was doing out there in the world -- I'm still sedated and not facing myself.'" Andrew stopped his medication and wrote to Victim Services, telling the staff he was ready if Adrian Early wanted to resume mediation. Early accepted the offer.
Lisa Looger, a mediator with VOM/D, began to meet separately with Adrian Early and Papke on a monthly basis, helping each work through the program's 160-page preparation manual. According to VOM/D staff, preparation for mediation between a victim and an offender is somewhat more important than the first meeting itself. Early and Papke's pre-mediation lasted almost a year.
"The [mediation] process takes you back to when you are a child, and asks you to look at your thinking patterns and behaviors, and how that led up to the tragedy," Papke says. "I came to the point where I would think, 'Who is the sorry bastard that did this?' and then, man, it would hit me. That was me. How could I have not seen this coming? How could I have let it get that far? The mediation changed my life more than anything."
Mediation also requires that the offender put himself in the shoes of his or her victim, and vice versa. One exercise asks the offender to make a list corresponding to each of the five senses, and imagine how a certain sight, smell, or touch might remind victims' families of their lost loved ones.
Papke was most strongly affected by an exercise requiring him to imagine and write about a scenario that could lead him to re-offend. The exercise forced him to recognize the "seemingly insignificant decisions" that -- one by one -- led him to perpetrate a violent crime. Papke imagined himself out of prison, alone and lonely on Christmas Eve, with nothing to do. He decides to have a cigarette, then remembers a gift bottle of champagne in a holiday fruit basket. He hadn't wanted to be rude and refuse it; now he considers having just one drink, to celebrate Christmas.
After a couple of drinks, Papke runs out of cigarettes. "The store is right around the corner," he imagines, and gets in his car to drive to the store and buy a new pack. But his imaginary self has forgotten his wallet; he has to go back home to retrieve it. After making a quick U-turn, he crashes into another car and once again commits the same offense.
"It's scary to imagine that happening again, but the mediation process forced me to do that," he says. "I know that it's not safe for me to ever have a drink again. ... To be honest, that's not a hard decision for me to make. When I smell alcohol, I smell blood and burning oil. It makes me sick."
On October 15, 1999, Adrian Early and Andrew Papke met for the first time. During their nine-hour conversation, Early spent a lot of the time asking Papke about the accident. "I really wanted to understand what was going on in Andrew's head the day of the accident," Early says. "For some reason, that was really important to me -- to understand why things happened the way they did."
All About Forgiveness
They concluded their conversation with what is known, in the mediation program's terminology, as the "affirmation agreement" -- through which the victim makes certain requests of the perpetrator. Some victims request progress reports and specific goals towards rehabilitation. Other requests are more symbolic: One woman asked her daughter's killer to draw a picture of the girl. Early urged Papke to "learn and grow, and become a person of value."
Mediation does not require the victim to forgive the offender, and Adrian Early says he had no plans to forgive Papke. But something about Papke made him change his mind. "I could see that Andrew was truly sorry and he was working on changing his life," he says. "That is why I forgave him -- not on principle or anything like that. Seeing the change in him somehow made things less painful."
For Papke, the results of the mediation were profound. "Before the mediation, I wanted to do good things, but had no direction," Papke says. "After the mediation, I had some clarity and direction. I felt like I was given a chance to turn my life into something positive." Nevertheless, it was very painful for him to return to his cell.
Now 24 years old, Papke keeps his mind occupied by maintaining a hectic schedule. In addition to working in the prison chapel eight hours each day, he spends his evenings working on his sociology degree through a program offered by the prison; he has just completed his paralegal degree. After his arrest, Papke and Janine married.
In the months following his incarceration, Papke began to use his written testimony to reach out to other prisoners in his Alcoholics Anonymous and church groups. That testimony, published in the Austin American-Statesman in December of 1999, inspired a high school class in Austin to write him letters.
"I hate to say this tragic event has become my life," Papke says, "but I feel like I owe that to Daniel and Beth."
As a result of the mediation, Papke also has become involved in "Bridges to Life," a 13-week program that, once a week, brings victims inside prisons to meet with offenders. He believes victims can have a strong influence on offenders, just by sharing their experiences. "It's amazing how much [Bridges to Life] opens inmates' eyes to the effects of their actions," he says. "The unrepentant ones get the most out of it. They participate just to get air conditioning for two hours a week, and it changes their life."
Shortly after the mediation with Adrian Early, Papke wrote to Martha Early, and the two began to correspond (see "Equal in God's Sight," below). Since Papke had experienced a profound conversion to Christianity following the accident, Martha Early found they now spoke a common language. By the time they met face to face in February of 2001, they already knew each other well. Nevertheless, she found the preparation very painful.
"When Beth was killed, I had to be strong," Martha Early says. "I had two teenage boys that needed a mom. I couldn't fall apart. The [pre-mediation] paperwork brought me back in touch with the pain, and with it came a lot of emotions I had suppressed at the time. I needed that."
Early also felt that the mediation was a test of her religious faith. She had already forgiven Papke on principle, but she wasn't certain if she could actually feel mercy in the presence of the man who had killed her daughter. "It is one thing to write a letter of forgiveness," she says. "But to sit next to him and say it ... I really had to ask myself, 'Martha, do you really forgive this young man?' And it was true. I did forgive him. The whole experience strengthened my faith. It was really awesome."
Since concluding their mediation, Martha Early and Papke have made plans to write a book together, and to visit schools in order to warn teenagers about the dangers of drinking and driving. However, to support her two sons Early must work two jobs, which makes it hard for her to find time to pursue such projects.
One might assume that because Papke's crime -- unlike, for example, premeditated murder -- was "unintentional," the success of his mediation is unremarkable. Doerfler rejects that assumption. "I believe most offenders genuinely want to be accountable," he says. "When you have worked with as many offenders as I have, the whole notion of 'intent' gets blurred very quickly. You see so many cases where the perpetrator was a victim of extreme abuse as a child, and that can become an excuse for their actions.
"By the same token," he adds, "nobody forced Andrew Papke to drink 30 beers and get behind a wheel, and he acknowledges that. The important thing is that he took responsibility for his actions."
Mediation is not for everyone. Some people, Lisa Looger says, are better off "as far away from the offender as possible." For example, the Londons never considered undergoing mediation; they believe that through Andrew Papke's harsh sentencing, justice was served.
"Our thoughts are about losing Daniel," says Alice London, Daniel's stepmother. "Andrew Papke doesn't even enter our thought process. We feel that the damage has been done and can't be fixed. I am not interested in making his life any easier. He could never understand the magnitude of our personal grief -- it's really beyond description."
London doesn't remember that Papke pleaded guilty. To her, it doesn't matter. What is important is the jury's strong message: Drinking and driving will have severe consequences. With MADD, she lobbied for the zero-tolerance law, which states that anyone caught for underage drinking faces suspension of their driver's license, even if they are not legally drunk.
"When the jury gave their sentence, that gave me closure," London says, adding, "I feel like he got a light sentence -- we got sentenced to a lifetime of grief."
At the same time, Jack London, Daniel's father, says that he might have advised the district attorney to accept a plea bargain had Papke's lawyers decided to offer one. That a sentencing trial was set immediately upon Papke's guilty plea was unusual. "Why his lawyers didn't offer a plea bargain is beyond me," London says.
A fundamental rule of mediation is that the offender does not receive leniency by entering the program. This ensures that the offender has only one motivation: to take responsibility for his or her actions. However, in Andrew Papke's case, both Adrian and Martha Early have decided to ask the parole board to waive the sentence imposed for Beth's death. (Papke is currently serving 20 years for killing Daniel London.) The parole board is not required to consider the request.
"Would I let Andrew free tomorrow if it was up to me?" asks Adrian Early. "Yes, I would."
Howard Papke, Andrew's father, has asked the Earlys as well as the Londons to advocate on Andrew's behalf. "I feel like his attorney sold him up the river," Howard says, adding that Jim Willett, the former warden of the Walls Unit at Huntsville, supports a reconsideration of Andrew's sentence.
David Doerfler refuses to take sides. "It's just one of those cases where you have to ask the hard question, 'What is justice?'" he says. "In the end, it doesn't matter if he is accountable -- those two kids are still dead. So, I'm torn both ways. I have seen my daughter suffer for 20 years because of someone's careless actions. I look at that and I have to ask myself what this all means. If you compare Papke's sentence with others, there is inequity there, to be sure. But I also feel for the victims. And I don't want that tension to go away."