Last Friday, we did a double-take over The Durango Herald headline, “Driver who fell asleep causing head-on crash sentenced to probation.”
The deckhead below made the reason more clear, “Family of mother killed agree to plea deal.”
This was striking. The Rohwer family lost their matriarch, Judy Rohwer of Pleasant View, in that crash on May 21, near the top of Hesperus Hill. Family members were relatively all right with this sentencing that seemed light. Lee Desmond only faces two years of probation and 100 hours of community service. Desmond must get a driver’s license. He was also fined $1,000 plus court costs and may have to pay restitution.
Yet, someone died.
The crux is what the family accepts – not the defendant’s sentence. This is based on a victim-centered approach, where victims’ needs are prioritized, followed by the community, then the defendant.
Listening to the victims – the harm they’ve suffered, their circumstances, their wishes and the inflections in their voices as they say all this – brings more humanity to the situation. It puts attention where it belongs: on the Rohwers.
If the family had pressed for a harsher sentence, Desmond’s circumstances might have been different. Of course, we don’t know this. But two points stood out that went beyond fixed courtroom elements of the facts and the rule of law.
First, Angela Rohwer said no sentencing would bring back their mother and the family is OK with the plea agreement.
Then, Senior Judge Jeffrey Romeo based his sentencing decision on the victims and the district attorney’s office being “OK” with the plea deal. “I have to trust in that,” Romeo said.
We are moved by the grace of the Rohwer family. Each of us responds to the loss of a loved one, and the trauma, shock and deep grief in wide-ranging ways. The Rohwers could have shown up wanting revenge. Or they might see their mother’s sudden death as separate and removed from Desmond’s sentencing. Or it may be something else entirely.
We just appreciate that their feelings were heard.
Sixth Judicial District Attorney Christian Champagne explains that his office thinks of justice as a three-legged stool: They take into account what the victims, community and defendant each want. “If you balance those things, that’s justice,” he said.
Each leg holds a different weight, leaning in to victims’ needs, the greater concern.
Another factor. Similarly situated defendants should get a similar outcome. “We’re trying to make sure we’re consistent over time,” he said.
Champagne said he’s a fan of Restorative Justice, which seeks to examine the harmful impact of a crime, then determine what can be done to repair that harm, while holding the person who caused it accountable. Whether Restorative Justice is applicable depends on each case. “My challenge is the nuts and bolts” of Restorative Justice, Champagne said. Not a bad idea, he said, but the outcome is “hard to achieve in a widespread way.”
Restorative Justice can be an extremely powerful tool, but the focus must be – again – on the victims first. An especially difficult situation would be, for example, victims helping an offender heal, “a big ask on the victims,” he said.
On the morning of the crash, the Rohwers were en route to the Durango Farmers Market, where they were a familiar, friendly sight. Angela, who was seriously injured in the crash, spoke before the sentencing.
“The sights, sounds, smells and the feeling of horror and helplessness are memories we can never get out of our heads,” she said as her voice broke with emotion. “The injuries that were sustained in the moment of impact were life-changing injuries, and we came very close to losing our business and farm.
“For the last eight months, our family has dealt with the grief and impact of this loss. We have struggled with the forgiveness part. Mom always taught us that true healing comes from forgiving and that if Christ could forgive us, then we should forgive those who have done us wrong.”