TAVP: Trying to Heal After Violence

Project hopes to broaden concept of justice

Samantha Fredrickson
Samantha Fredrickson (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Derrek and Keith Brooks were just teenagers when their father was sent to Texas' death row. Six years later, their dad, Charlie Brooks Jr., would be the first inmate put to death by Texas after reinstatement of the death penalty – and the first in the nation to be executed by lethal injection. On that date – Dec. 7, 1982 – Brooks told the warden he didn't want his sons to watch. The boys were by then young men, and angered by that decision; Keith threw a chair as the family waited to be told that Brooks had passed.

When they finally emerged from the prison, a throng of media and protesters surrounded them; at home in Fort Worth, they were inundated by media requests even as they tried to put their lives back together. It was not easy. "I thought I had these emotions under control," Derrek says, holding back tears, in a new, video-recorded oral history interview about his father and family.

Indeed, the sons still question whether their father was actually responsible for the 1976 murder of car dealership employee David Gregory. They know that their father was from a well-to-do Fort Worth family, but that he also struggled with drug addiction. They know that his friend, Woody Loudres, whom they called "Uncle Woody," was with their father on the night Gregory died; they also know that there were witnesses – none of whom their father's lawyer called to testify, they recall – who said it was not their father who pulled the trigger. More than three decades later, neither son is convinced that their father was responsible for Gregory's death.

Derrek and Keith are among more than 100 people who have been interviewed as part of the Texas After Violence Project. Founded in 2007 by Austin lawyer Walter Long, TAVP strives to do justice by allowing victims of violence to tell their stories. Victims of violence are everywhere – not only in the families of the direct victims of crime as well as the families of offenders, but including all those who deal daily with violent crime and the criminal justice system: judges, lawyers, community activists, police. Hearing these stories can help broaden the concept of justice, says TAVP Executive Director Samantha Fredrickson, and how it is best served. Violence "has an impact on so many people. ... We argue that justice is about truth and about making individuals and communities whole." Often, people don't have the chance to tell their stories – as with Brooks' sons who, now well into middle-age, have for the first time told their father's story from their perspective and have shared its impact on them.

TAVP's program – for now, collecting oral histories from individuals involved in capital punishment and other murder cases – is a restorative justice project, meant to consider the best ways of making people whole after experiencing violence. "Sort of a truth and reconciliation" commission, says Fred­rick­son. The group records oral histories, which are archived with the Human Rights Documentation Initiative through the UT-Austin libraries with portions posted to the TAVP website, and then presents the interviews to community groups to spark discussion. For example, one piece is about activists who gather outside the Huntsville Unit (also known as the "Walls Unit," for its red brick walls), which houses the state's execution chamber, before each execution. The point of the combined narratives – from anti-death penalty activists to a death row warden – is to challenge viewers to think about "how we talk about the death penalty, and how we think about it, and how we move beyond polarization." In the end, she says, the goal is to "educate people and to break down barriers ... [to] urge people to think differently about criminal justice."

The Texas After Violence Project is hosting a fundraiser on Wednesday, May 8, from 5:30-7pm at Scholz Garten, showcasing footage of the previously unpublished interviews with Derrek and Keith Brooks. The event is free, but donations are welcome. Please RSVP at info@texasafterviolence.org or 512/916-1600.

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