Imagine being in a room with the person who murdered your child. How would you react? What would you want to say to the killer?
Every day in America grieving families congregate in courtrooms to watch justice meted out to those who've robbed them of their loved ones. Before a sentence is passed upon the convicted, judges offer family members a chance to give a "victim's impact statement." It's the most dramatic, heart-wrenching moment of the entire judicial process.
Such a day played out recently in a San Diego courtroom with a registered sex offender named John Gardner. He'd been out on parole less than five months after having served six years for sexually attacking a 13-year-old girl. At 31 years old, Gardner was living with his mother when he began preying on other young girls. Gardner ultimately confessed to abducting, raping, and murdering 14-year-old Amber Dubois and 17-year-old Chelsea King and to the brutal attack on another young woman who testified about how she lived through the ordeal.
"Look at me!" Chelsea King's mother demanded of Gardner as she began her victim's impact statement to the court. There was a long pause as Gardner, wearing his prison greens and slumped at the defendant's table, kept his chin lowered but sheepishly glanced up for a split second.
And then in a soft, eloquent voice Kelly King contrasted the "wretched piece of evil" that is John Gardner with her beautiful dead daughter: "She was a funny, a fun-loving girl, a gifted musician, a fiercely competitive athlete with a thirst for life. She couldn't wait to start college! I can never adequately articulate what you plundered from us and our community. You should burn in hell."
Brent King told the killer what it was like to be Chelsea's father. "I loved feeding her, playing with her, changing her diapers, just being her dad," he said. He called Gardner a coward for knowing he had a problem and ignoring it. King said he hoped Gardner lived every day of the rest of his life in prison in fear of fellow inmates "who are going to torment you. You do not deserve a peaceful moment on this earth or the next life."
Both Kings blamed a judicial system that allowed a dangerous predator to be freed. They also blamed Gardner's mother, a psychiatric nurse who, they said, knew what her son was capable of but did nothing to monitor or stop him.
As I watched this play out, I wondered whether I would have the strength to be so articulate in that circumstance, or whether I would dissolve into a puddle of tears, unable to speak a word.
The statements given by the parents of Amber Dubois really tore my heart. They had to wait 13 months with no news about what had happened to their precious daughter. It was only after Gardner was arraigned on charges of murdering Chelsea that he finally led police to Amber's body and the awful truth was revealed.
Maurice Dubois compared Gardner to a mountain lion whose predilection to kill came naturally, so it was no surprise the murders began so soon after he was released from parole.
"[You] ... heartlessly discarded our beautiful 14-year-old girl, Amber," he said. "You will burn in hell for the acts you have committed. I just hope that day is as agonizingly long way away and that you have to suffer as much as we all have."
And then Amber's mother stepped forward to address the court. Her attorney had told me privately that she had been so consumed with knowing about her daughter's last moments on earth that she'd requested and gotten a face-to-face prison meeting with John Gardner. No details have been released, but can you imagine sitting down to talk with your child's killer?
"After 15 months of the most agonizing pain, worry, and grief, I'm supposed to address the court," Carrie McGonigle began. "On February 13, 2009 [Amber] innocently walked to school. I kissed her goodbye and said I loved her, not knowing it would be the last time. You took my best friend."
Amazingly, tears rolled down John Gardner's cheeks. Perhaps it was because he'd already met with Amber's mom and she'd somehow gotten through to his perverted criminal sense of right and wrong.
Yes, in courtrooms around America the "victim impact statement" scene plays out in varying degrees every day. Victims hope that somehow confronting the guilty will bring them some sort of vindication or peace. For some it does.
At the end of her message to the court that day, Amber Dubois' mother said the most remarkable thing to John Gardner, "I forgive you, but I will never forget what you stole from me."
I know I'd never have the courage to say that.
Diane Dimond can be reached through her website, www.DianeDimond.com.