Greetings listeners and thank you so much for joining us for this episode of Encounters with Dignity, a podcast on restorative justice hosted by Catholic Mobilizing Network!
I’m your host, Caitlin Morneau and it is good to be with you.
On Encounters with Dignity, we lift up the voices and stories of people who are living restorative justice. One of the most important ways to do this is by hearing from those who have been through a restorative process themselves.
If you’re joining us for the first time, restorative justice is an approach to crime and harm that seeks healing, rather than vengeance. When people and relationships are violated, restorative justice upholds human dignity, rebuilds relationships, and transforms lives and systems.
Restorative practices include those impacted by harm in voluntary processes aimed to address needs, build understanding, and make amends, to move forward in the spirit of right relationship. In this episode, we bear witness to the story of two families whose faith, forgiveness, and courage enabled them to say “yes” to such an encounter.
Let me tell you a little bit about the voices you’re about to hear…In March: In:
In the years since Ann’s death, all five of these individuals, along with Conor, have generously shared their experience. And it has been a great blessing and honor of mine to get to know each one.
As you listen to their testimonies…
Consider a time when you have offered or received forgiveness. What did it feel like? What made it possible?
How would you see the relationship between truth, mercy, justice, and peace?
What does their story reveal to you about the needs for healing that go unmet by our criminal legal system?
This is Kate Grosmaire. I'm going to begin the story. That particular Sunday was Palm Sunday that year. So, Andy and I after church that morning, were both out in the garden. We came in pretty hot and sweaty. So, we were both cleaning up when the doorbell rang.
On the other side of the door was a Deputy Sheriff from the Leon County Sheriff's Office and a woman who identified herself as the Victim's Advocate for the Leon County Sheriff's Office. They asked if we were Ann's parents and if they could come in and talk to us. It was then that they told us that Ann had been shot. I honestly couldn't wrap my mind around that.
I remembered that she was supposed to be with Conor, her fiancé. So, I asked, "Was she with Conor McBride?" It was the deputy sheriff who told us that it was Conor who had shot Ann. Again, it was just a fact that I couldn't wrap my mind around.
Well, the Sheriff's Office said they were there to bring us safely to the hospital. I said, "We need to pray." We prayed for Ann and the people taking care of her, but we also prayed for Conor, because we knew that wherever he was, he needed our prayers as well.
We went to the hospital and everything was so confusing. The doctor said she was in grave condition. He also said it was a miracle that she was alive. I couldn't see the miracle.
Ann and Conor had gotten into an argument. Conor had taken the shotgun and had threatened to kill himself, but in the ensuing argument had shot Ann instead. As the week progressed, it was clear that Ann would not survive her injuries. So, we made the decision to take her off life support on Friday. If you remember, this happened on Sunday, Palm Sunday. So, Friday was Good Friday.
So the night before, the McBrides had told us that Conor had put me on his waiting list to see him in the Leon County Jail. I wasn't sure why he did that. I'm not sure why I decided to go except I have this thing about attendance. I thought, "Well, if I'm one of the few people that can go see him, I should go see him." I asked Andy on Thursday night what he wanted me to tell Conor. He told me, he said, “Tell Conor, I love him and I forgive him."
Now, we had spent a lot of time together that week, but neither of us had spoken to one another about our thoughts on forgiveness. Andy had quite a remarkable experience, where he felt that both Ann and Jesus were asking him to forgive Conor. For me, it was more of a remembering of everything I had learned in the Healing Prayer Ministry and how so often, forgiveness brings freedom to the forgiver. So, I knew I would have to forgive Conor. Michael?
I went to Tallahassee Memorial and up to intensive care. The hall and waiting room were packed. Kate and Andy Grosmaire were across a sea of people. I felt like a cartoon character shrinking in a place that did not belong. I remember standing against the wall breathing deeply to try to stem the nausea when a lady walked up to me and said, "Are you Conor's dad? You look just like him." It turned out that that was Conor's supervisor. I subsequently found out she went over to Andy and specifically said there is someone to see you.
Andy Grosmaire made his way across the crowd and hugged me and said something I will never forget. He said, "Thank you for being here, but please don't be offended if I hate you by the end of the week." All I could say was, "I'm so sorry." After some conversation, I was in too much shock to hear. I was introduced to Fr. Michael Foley from Good Shepherd Catholic Church here in Tallahassee. He prayed for us, not just for Ann Grosmaire but for Connor McBride, not just for the Grosmaires but all the families impacted by this tragedy.
It was a consummate sign of love and mercy from the community that the McBride family would encounter along this journey.
We began Wednesday of that week finding out how to tread water in the judicial system. We learned how much it would cost to hire a lawyer for Conor to do what was described to us as mitigate down from a life sentence. This was also the first day that Conor was out of suicide watch at the Leon County Jail. We were allowed to visit him. One at a time behind Plexiglas over a greasy phone, we talked to a haggard and scared boy, who could only ask us how Ann was. He had just found out that she had not immediately died after getting released from suicide watch. We didn't know what to say to him except that we were and always would be there for him, no matter what was to come.
So, it's now Friday morning, Good Friday morning. At 9:00 AM, I headed for the Leon County Jail. We were going to take Ann off life support once I got to the hospital. Quite honestly, I went to the jail because I didn't want to be the one to tell Conor that Ann had died. I went up to the desk and handed them my driver's license and told them I was there to see Conor McBride. She looked at the license. She looked at me. She looked at the license. She looked at me. She said, "Are you the victim's mother?" I said, "Yes." She said, "Can you stand over here?" I said, "Yes." A little while later, a uniformed officer came up. She said, "You're on his list, you have your ID. So, we're going to let you go up, but don't pound on the glass." I said, "I'm not here to pound on the glass." So, I walked down the hallway.
Quite honestly, being that it was Good Friday, I couldn't help but think about Jesus and where he had spent the previous night himself. I didn't know why am I visiting Conor and thinking about Jesus, but that's what I was thinking. I was thinking, "Was he alone? Was anybody allowed to visit him when he was in jail?" So, I went up. As Julie said, there's Plexiglas and a phone and a little plastic bucket seat. I sat down and waited. Soon I saw Conor coming down the hallway. When he sat down, he was already crying. He said, "I'm so, so, so sorry." I said "Conor, Mr. Grosmaire wants me to tell you that he loves you and he forgives you." I said, "Conor, you know I love you and I forgive you."
When I said those words, I meant it. I have never had to take them back. I've reflected on it. Those times that are very difficult, the holidays, and when one of our other daughters got married and Ann wasn't there to celebrate with us. But I come back to the fact that I have forgiven Conor and the peace that comes with that comes to me even in the midst of my grief. Andy?
So, we love and forgive Conor, but is that all? Is that all we had to do? Maybe, but I felt compelled and we felt compelled to do something else. I always heard that prison was a terrible place. So, outside of Tallahassee, we have a faith-based character prison. I thought, "If there was any place that was supposed to be a nicer prison, maybe this was it." So, I started asking around about how we could help Conor be located in a faith-based prison. They told me that I should talk to a man named Allison DeFoor.
I reached out to him and contacted him. I was telling about the story, about what happened. I told him that I was looking for some way to get Conor into the faith-based prison. He looked right at me and said, "Andy, what are you doing? All you Catholics do is restorative justice. Why aren't you doing that?" Now, at the time I was in formation to be a deacon in the Catholic Church. I had no idea what restorative justice was. It stung a little bit that's supposedly all Catholics know about it. Like any good thing, he said, "Google it."
So, I went home and Google it. I thought this was a great idea. I started doing some research on it. I even wrote a paper for a class on it. I talked to Kate about it, and she was all eager to do it. I talked to Michael and he was eager to do that too, because it gave a chance for us as people that were involved a chance to speak as victims in this process. So, like anything, I reached out to some places. Honestly, I didn't get a response.
I was looking for someone who could help all of us. A colleague's daughter-in-law had attended Eastern Mennonite University. She encouraged me to contact Howard Zehr. Howard Zehr is known as the grandfather of restorative justice. So, I reached out to him and caught him returning home from Germany. He was thoughtful and he was kind. He said he would contact two restorative justice lawyers he knew. And I received a call from Sujatha Baliga of Oakland, California. She was calling – I later discovered – to tell me gently that this would never happen, that it had never been done before in a murder case and certainly not in a state as punitive as Florida.
I mentioned that the fathers, Michael and Andy were having lunch each week. She said, "Wait, they're talking?" I said, "Yes." She said she would agree to talk with Kate and Andy. She said, "If they call me and agree to a circle, I will let you know." I called Kate. She immediately called Sujatha. The restorative justice process circle was started with Sujatha agreeing to be the facilitator.
One of the key things about the circle was, we set some things out in the middle to represent Ann's life and everything. One of the things that we asked is Conor not to be shackled when he came in. So, when he came in, he was not shackled. For the first time in the 14 months that it occurred since his arrest, he got to hug his parents. To me, that's really quite a wonderful thing about restorative justice. It's just these human touches that we all crave. He was allowed to do that. So, the circle started with the State Attorney reading the charges. And then it came to Kate and I. We talked about who Ann was and how important it was to her.
After that, Conor had his chance to speak. He has told us since then that speaking to us about what happened to Ann's life that night was the hardest thing he's ever encountered, harder than anything he's ever encountered in prison. So, when people say that restorative justice is soft on crime, Conor McBride says absolutely not. It's the worst thing he ever had to do was speak to the victim's parents. After we just talked about how important Ann was to our lives.
Afterwards, it was very hard, listen to what happened, because that was one of the things I wanted out of the restorative justice circle. I wanted to hear what happened, because as a father, I feel like I'm a protector of my daughter. I want to know what happened to her. So, he told us, and it was very difficult. People say that in points and stuff, your heart breaks, but I can tell you that day that my heart physically felt like it was breaking, because it was just senseless. It was just two people who argued and just couldn't stop.
Eventually, they let their emotions just run completely the pavement and didn't know how to stop it. And then Conor told us that he shot her just because he wanted to have it stopped. It just made no sense. Kate was much smarter. She knew that there wasn't going to be any sense out of this, but she was hoping for a meaningful sentence in this. She also was hoping for meaningful actions by Conor afterwards. She wanted him to speak out about the issues that he faced about violence and relationships.
She wanted him to be involved in anger management to control the anger that he felt. She also wanted him to volunteer where Ann would have volunteered, some of the activities that she was. Conor really took that to heart, because he said, as Kate sometimes said, "What can I do? What can I do? What can I do to lift these two lives and to make up somewhat for the one that I took?"
Just to emphasize that for me, it was about participating in the sentencing for Conor. Quite honestly, we found out early on that the death penalty was off the table, but that he was facing up to life in prison and that they were recommending 40 or 60 years. To me, to have him sit in a jail cell every day for that length of time couldn't possibly make up for the life that Ann was going to live. It made no sense. So, it would have made more sense to send him to college, have him get a good job, and then send me his paycheck every month.
So, what I really wanted, as Andy said, was a meaningful sentence. A meaningful sentence was not a lengthy sentence. It was incorporating things that would help Conor become a good person for when he was released from prison and then for him to do the good deeds of two people for himself and then also for Ann.
I wouldn't be talking to you if I had not forgiven Conor, if I had not gone through the restorative justice process. I don't know that I'd be married to my wonderful husband. I don't know what kind of mother I would be to my other two girls. I had to forgive, so that I could move on with my life. I'm grateful for my life that gave me that lesson to know that that's where I needed to be.
The family of the offender does not exist in the Florida judicial system. But restorative justice allowed us to participate. It saw Conor as a person in the community. The context of holding the circle as a pre-plea conference allowed the discussion to fit in the existing confines of the Florida judicial system and be unrestricted without consequences to what was discussed. This was especially important to Conor. It freed the discourse to make him deal with the immense reality of what his crime was. It made him state what he did to those he most impacted and then made him hear the enormity of the impact those actions have.
Neither the prosecutor nor the Defense Attorney had encountered restorative justice before. As he walked out of the jail, Conor's Defense Attorney turned to me and said, "I should have charged you more." It's another indication of how stepping out of the normal proceedings is not simple or easy.
In the circle, I said, "Conor could take the responsibility, but he could not take all the blame." I lost my brother 10 years earlier right after my dad passed and I became a very angry man. Unfortunately, my 10 year old son at the time learned about anger from his dad. The ability of the circle to address such deep seated harm for me greatly enhanced its redemptive benefit.
Another thing the circle highlighted to us was community impact. Our community had lost two young people in this one awful act.
From that first night in intensive care to this day, Andy Grosmaire never has showed me that hatred. The Grosmaires and the McBrides gained the rapport of two parents that have lost a child. We made a connection between two families devastated by the same tragedy. Kate Grosmaire said that Conor owed them a debt that he could not repay. This is especially poignant to me, because I learned the Lord's Prayer, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Over the years I've heard the Lord's Prayer said many times, but I never seen it so profoundly displayed in action as this time. The Grosmaires show that their way was to live the words they pray. Sujatha, please?
It is true, as Julie described, that I was a bit reticent to get involved initially. One of my heart mentors in this work, Howard Zehr, pressed upon me to at a minimum speak to Julie. He said, "She's a wonderful woman. You can explain to her what your concerns are and why you think that this isn't possible." So, in that first conversation with Julie, I just was really trying to explain to her, it's face-to-face dialogue and participatory decision making in which the people who are most directly impacted come up with the outcome of, "What will help everyone move forward in a good way?" So that, to me, seemed like an absolute legal impossibility. I couldn't get my brain around how it is that we might actually make this work now that Conor had turned himself in and this was a potential capital crime. But as Julie described so beautifully when she explained that Michael and Andy were meeting weekly and that she had been tasked in this conversation with the four of them of continuing to search for a restorative justice facilitator, I couldn't keep saying no.
And then when I spoke with the Grosmaires, it seemed inevitable that regardless of what it was, that would happen. It was particularly true, because my own personal desire was actually to get involved in intimate partner and sexual violence work. It's what brought me to the work. I myself am a survivor. I wish that restorative justice had been available to my family, a family in which we experienced domestic violence as well as I experienced sexual abuse. So, when there were families that were willing to work together like this and were coming from such a good place of good heart, it felt like I had to figure out something around this.
So, it was through several initial conversations and including that one with Allison DeFoor, where the idea came to use the plea conferencing process. The conversation usually happens between two lawyers where they're going back and forth and saying, "Oh, it should be first degree murder." "Oh, no, it should be second degree. These are the facts." They just go back and forth. It definitely doesn't involve the survivors, the victim's families, but it doesn't often really involve the person who's caused the harm, even weighing in on it.
So, we thought, "Oh, that's privileged and confidential, the conversations that happen there." That's one of the things I think is most important as a restorative justice facilitator, that we don't create restorative justice processes that brings out information that can later be used in court. That felt really, really important to me that we don't have really sincere conversations if we're worried that everything we're saying is going to result in longer sentences or is going to be more about the state deciding what happens, instead of the families deciding what happens. So, this felt like the best thing that we could possibly do under these circumstances. I think the circle has been so beautifully described.
I think it's really important to remember Howard Zehr's three questions, right? Who was harmed? What do they need? Whose obligation is it to meet those needs? How it really just starts with these beautiful, lengthy conversations with Kate and Andy about, "What did they need now moving forward? What did this process need to look like for them? What mementos of Ann's life should be in the circle?"
This is what it means to have the process be driven by those who are most directly impacted, right? What does it mean to be in deep, deep conversation with Conor for many months about what does it mean for him to really remember exactly what happened that day? Because Andy deserved answers to his questions. For Conor to do that very, very hard work of digging deeply and for the whole family to do that incredible work.
I mean, to my mind, there were many moving parts of the circle, but the two that moved me most deeply were when Michael took responsibility for what it is that he had taught his son. The other part that moved me so deeply was Kate saying that Conor would have to do the good works of two people, because Ann would have done great things with her life. It wasn't just moving that a mother could hold that loss of that particular trajectory, but that that she could task the young man who took her daughter's life with that. Really, just a life changing moment, so many in that circle, so many.
I think it's really important to name that in restorative processes, that to my mind, forgiveness is neither a prerequisite for participation, nor a required or an expected outcome. That forgiveness comes when it does at the pace at which those who are ready to let go of their own anger let it go. That being said, when restorative justice is well done in a sense, I can't imagine a better cauldron for cooking up some forgiveness than restorative justice. Again, in this case really, the forgiveness preceded the restorative justice process. I think it's really again important to let people's individual spiritual and internal journeys towards forgiveness happen in their own way with or without restorative justice.
Catholic tradition recognizes and affirms what we just heard so beautifully depicted: that forgiveness is never an obligation, but a creative act of invitation, possibility, and grace. So restorative processes do not expect or require specific expressions of forgiveness. Rather, by tending to the impacts of harm in solidarity with one another, restorative practices are vessels for God’s grace and mercy to shape the labor of justice itself.
As we heard so clearly from the Grosmaire’s, forgiveness did not not preclude their search for justice, but enabled a healing justice that honored the dignity of all.
Pope Francis says it this way in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti: “Forgiveness does not entail allowing oppressors to keep trampling on their own dignity and that of others, or letting criminals continue their wrongdoing. Those who suffer injustice have to defend strenuously their own rights and those of their family, precisely because they must preserve the dignity they have received as a loving gift from God. … This is entirely just: forgiveness does not forbid it [justice], but actually demands it.”
The Grosmaire’s and McBride’s story reveals how this is true and possible.
When we expand our moral imagination, we can respond to harm and violence in creative ways - that uphold dignity, build a culture of life, and seek healing rather than vengeance.
Thank you Kate, Deacon Andy, Julie, Michael, and sujatha for your creativity, courage, and commitment to sharing your story so that it may inspire and encourage others to embrace forgiveness and restorative justice in their own lives and communities.
I hope you enjoyed this episode of Encounters With Dignity. Be sure to subscribe to our show from your favorite podcast platform, or by visiting catholicsmobilizing.org/encounters. For podcast updates and other news from Catholic Mobilizing Network, follow us on social media or sign up for our emails at catholicsmobilizing.org/join.
Be sure to join us next month when we’ll hear from Dr. David Karp and leaders from the Restorative Justice Network of Catholic Campuses about restorative justice in Catholic educational settings.
If you feel ready to engage more deeply with restorative justice practices, then check out “Paths of Renewed Encounter,” CMN’s restorative justice engagement guide for Catholic communities. Find it at catholicsmobilizing.org/paths.
Let us close in prayer…
God of Mercy, You bestow upon every person a dignity that cannot be extinguished, no matter the harm someone has suffered or caused. Ignite in our imaginations more restorative approaches to harm and violence that embody Your vision of right-relationship. Embolden in us the fire to foster a culture of life. Sustain our pursuit of a reconciling justice, that we may model your compassion and mercy with our lives. Amen.