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Restorative Justice at Core of Kilgore Case


“… the forgiveness of violent acts under conditions of full disclosure can have great healing power. ”

— Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu

When it comes to forgiveness and healing and moving forward, it seems we still have a lot to consider, to discuss and to resolve.

The Illinois State Senate passed a bill last Monday that would make it illegal to use a false degree or one gained under false pretenses to get a job or gain admission to an institution of higher learning.

The legislation covering fraud in connection with state-funded mental health services was amended to include the provision on universities. The language was inspired by the case of James Kilgore, the controversial research scholar at the University of Illinois and frequent CounterPunch contributor, according to the amendment’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Chapin Rose.

The vote took place a week after Kilgore appeared before the university’s Board of Trustees and will likely ban Kilgore from university employment.

But no matter how all this turns out, there are underlying issues that still should be sorted.

Apart from the questions raised about the measure itself, there is still the issue of our society’s approach to crime and punishment.

The Kilgore case provides a chance to weigh the value of restorative justice as an alternative to the increasingly punitive approach that overwhelms our justice system while contributing little to a cohesive society. Simply put, how do we begin rebuilding a society damaged by crime if we deny ex-offenders the chance to make amends, take responsibility and restore their own lives in the process? How do we help them and the victims become fully functioning, productive citizens in a democratic society?

Kilgore really didn’t spend much of his limited public comment time before the Board of Trustees arguing the case for renewing his contract. Instead, he explained the path his life had taken since his release. A restorative path. And he offered that, as an ex-offender, he had life experiences that would benefit students, and the university.

Kilgore served a six-year prison term in California for second-degree murder, stemming from his involvement with the Symbionese Liberation Army and a 1974 bank robbery that resulted in the death of a customer. He hid for years, briefly in Australia, then in South Africa, and earned a Ph.D. under his assumed identity, Charles Pape.

While he did not fire the fateful shot, he was accountable for the death. No one has questioned the scope of his punishment.

What has been questioned is whether Kilgore and other formerly incarcerated people should continue to be penalized, denied the rights and privileges of reentry into society long after their debt to society has been paid.

What does justice require?

Advocates of a restorative model assert that a just outcome requires that we repair the harm caused by crime — harm done to society, as well as to the victims and victims’ families. Makes sense. As a logical matter. As a transformative matter. There is increasing evidence that this restorative justice process can help cut recidivism rates, lower crime rates and reduce the costs of incarceration. Whatever other elements the restorative process includes—like mediated conferences with victims, families and offenders — it must involve some expression of remorse by the offender.

“As a young man I committed acts of which I stand ashamed, acts which were not only illegal, but utterly destructive to innocent members of the community and damaging to my family, loved ones and all those who campaigned for social justice and peace,” Kilgore intoned in his statement to the Illinois trustees.

Talking it through, admitting to the harm, apologizing are key factors Kilgore saw during the nearly 20 years he lived in southern Africa — and especially in South Africa, where he witnessed the country’s transition from its racist exclusionary past to an inclusive democratic society. The post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission process in South Africa began in 1996 with hearings allowing victims to talk about human rights violations and other crimes committed against them, and for perpetrators — often government officials and police — to confess to their “crimes against humanity,” to apologize, to be forgiven.

“Saying I am sorry is the first step in healing and reconciliation through the recognition of our shared humanity,” Archbishop Emeritus, Desmond Tutu has observed. As the face of South Africa’s truth and reconciliation process, Tutu long has asserted the power of an apology, which “not only aids in another’s healing, but our own as well and begins the journey of healing the world at large. ” A sentiment reflected in the epigraph above, excerpted from the March 25, 2003 letter written by Tutu in support of Kilgore during his sentencing deliberations.

A lesson in forgiveness drawn from South Africa. “When you see people whose families experienced horrible tortures at the hands of the security police actually confronting these people but also trying to achieve some kind of reconciliation, uneven and imperfect as the process was, it showed some possibilities of a different way of doing things,” Kilgore told me.

His recent apology, though, was answered by an act of retribution which may ban him from teaching in any state university. An ironic reminder of so many people once banned under Apartheid to silence political dissent in South Africa.

“One of the things that shocked me when I came to the U.S. after having been through this process of reconciliation in South Africa was how that was completely foreign in the U.S. ,” Kilgore notes. “We had this vindictiveness against people who had committed crimes 30 or 40 years previously. ” Australian social psychologist Ian McKee has shown that this retributive tendency — apart from its eye-for-an-eye Biblical origin — is associated with authoritative and conservative leanings by people who tend to be motivated by power and who are less likely to want to forgive. Surprisingly, revenge doesn’t make people feel better. According to research by Colgate University social psychologist Kevin Carlsmith, people who engage in retributive behavior tend to dwell on the matter in a negative way, while research subjects who didn’t exercise the revenge option showed more positive feelings and they were able to move on.

By extension, retribution is not likely to make us feel better as a society. Restorative justice would seem to serve the larger public good. In terms of positive feelings, as well as service to society.

Kilgore felt he was moving in the direction of achieving some measure of restorative justice. As a teacher and organizer in South Africa, and continuing in Champaign-Urbana with work as a researcher, lecturer and in community service, he was giving something back to make up for the “bad judgments” of his earlier years.

“For more than three decades I have attempted to move beyond those acts, to chart a different road, working through nonviolent means as an educator in the cause of social justice,” he said in his statement to the Illinois trustees. He believed he had found an approach to community engagement “in ways that I thought were socially constructive in terms of dealing with issues of criminal justice. ”

Jon Opsahl, the son of the slain Myrna Opsahl, recently told the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette that “James Kilgore has earned the opportunity for a second chance. ”

We all deserve that second chance. A chance to consider the kind of society we want to shape — one in which we are so blinded by our emphasis on retribution that the penalty for every crime amounts to a life sentence, or one in which we see more clearly the value of rebuilding our communities with help from people who have been rehabilitated.

Christopher Benson is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

This article originally appeared in the Chicago Reporter.

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