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They Agreed to Meet Their Mother’s Killer. Then Tragedy Struck Again.

A Florida family opted for restorative justice over the death penalty for the man who murdered their mom. What happened next made them question the very meaning of justice.

Filed 6:00 a.m.

On Sept. 12, 2018, the five adult children of Debbie Liles waited in the prosecutor’s office in Jacksonville, Florida, to meet the man who one year earlier had bludgeoned their mother to death with a golf club.

Michelle, 38, had brought what she called her “madwoman” binder of colorfully highlighted police reports about the murder. Have you seen the crime-scene photos of our mom’s brain leaking onto her kitchen floor? she wanted to ask. Because we have. So you should too.

Sitting on a windowsill, Dana, 42, clutched a framed poster of a space shuttle that she planned to show the man. On the back, Debbie, a grandmother of eight, had written a note to one of Dana’s sons, who struggled with loneliness as a boy. “This picture makes me think of you so much,” she wrote, “a rocket shooting up to God.”

This article was published in partnership with The Atlantic.

Photos by Kathryn Harrison for The Marshall Project and The Atlantic

Photo of Johnie Lewis Miller by Bron Moyi for The Marshall Project and The Atlantic

Design by Katie Park

Their brother Gerald, 34, the philosopher of the family, sat thinking about a court document he’d read that detailed the perpetrator’s childhood. Repeatedly abandoned as a toddler with no food for days at a time. Found wandering on a highway at age 4. Sibling died in a house fire. Sexually abused, whipped with extension cords, placed in more than 20 different foster homes. Attempted suicide at age 13 because, he said, “nobody wanted him.” Gerald wanted to believe that this man was just broken, not beyond repair. Your life has value, he hoped to tell him.

After a while, their father, Mike, joined them and their other siblings, Rachel, 43, and Rockey, 26. Wearing his Sunday suit, Mike could hardly keep his head up as he walked through security—the violent killing of his wife of 41 years had hobbled him physically and mentally. He placed his tattered King James Bible on the conveyor belt, planning to read a passage to her murderer, perhaps from Matthew 5:39: “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” More than anything, Mike wanted answers. Even after a police investigation and a year of pretrial hearings, he was plagued by questions. Did you have an accomplice? Did Debbie try to get away? Why us?

The defendant had agreed to tell Mike and his family everything about the murder and to plead guilty. In return, he would be spared the death penalty and instead spend his life in prison—but only if the Lileses felt satisfied that he had told the truth. This arrangement, brokered by Jacksonville’s newly elected state attorney, was essentially unprecedented in the history of homicide prosecutions in the United States.

Jacksonville, the murder capital of Florida, seems an unlikely place to find a more merciful response to homicide. Under the leadership of Angela Corey, the state attorney there from 2009 through 2016, hundreds of children—disproportionately Black children—were charged as adults, and more people were sent to death row than in nearly any other jurisdiction in the country. She once made national headlines for charging a 12-year-old boy with first-degree murder, prompting a cover story in The Nation headlined “Is Angela Corey the Cruelest Prosecutor in America?”

In the 2016 election, Corey was ousted by Melissa Nelson, a younger and significantly more charismatic Republican, who campaigned on a platform of being “tough but fair.” Hardly one of the so-called progressive prosecutors promising to reduce punishments for crimes in places like Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco, she supports the death penalty and has boasted about her record of putting away “drug traffickers, robbers, rapists, and murderers,” including a man who chopped a couple to death with an ax.

Yet Nelson, the daughter of a sheriff’s deputy, is a believer in alternative sentencing. During her campaign, she used the example of three children stealing a loaf of bread to explain to a local newspaper why she rejected one-size-fits-all punishments: “One steals because he was dared, one because he’s hungry, and one because he thinks it would be fun.” When we met, she chatted unguardedly about racial disparities in the criminal-justice system. She also welcomed an ongoing MacArthur Foundation study of her office—and publicized its first wave of data in December 2018—despite the finding that some of the lawyers who worked for her were “defensive about race.” Although Florida would have the highest incarceration rate in the world if it were a country, almost a third of Nelson’s staff believed that the courts were “too lenient on defendants.”

When you lose someone to homicide, I presume you think about that loss every day of your life. What I learned was that it’s common to want things that prosecution alone cannot provide.

State Attorney Melissa Nelson

One of the cases that she took over from Corey was the 2013 murder of Shelby Farah, a 20-year-old of Arab descent who was shot in the head during a robbery at the cellphone store where she worked. It took only days for police to arrest a suspect, a 21-year-old Black man named James Rhodes, but the trial was delayed for years as Corey pursued a death sentence against the wishes of Farah’s mother, Darlene.

At first, Darlene Farah had wanted to sneak a gun into court to kill Rhodes herself. She knew that death-penalty cases could drag on for years, often tearing victims’ families apart and rarely providing closure. But after what she learned from a former FBI agent she had hired to investigate Rhodes’s past, she decided that he didn’t deserve to be executed. From the time he was a baby, Rhodes lived with his grandmother—his mother had abandoned him, and his father was periodically imprisoned. The bus driver who took him to day care reported that the boy would often cry from hunger. At a group home where he spent much of his childhood, he was sexually abused by another boy and by a counselor.

Farah wanted to tell Rhodes that although his history did not justify his crime, she in many ways saw him as a victim too. She repeatedly asked the prosecutor’s office to let her talk with him in person—something that is rarely done in murder cases—but Farah said Corey denied every request. When Nelson took office, eager to resolve the three-year-old case, she dropped the death penalty against Rhodes and reluctantly agreed to let Farah and her family meet with him.

The conversation lasted an hour. Farah asked Rhodes to describe what her daughter looked like, to make sure that he cared enough to remember. He did, perfectly. Farah told him about the kind of person Shelby had been. That her middle-school friends had called her the “peacemaker” because she hated when they argued. That in high school, she’d volunteered to coach cheerleading in a less well-off community.

For his part, Rhodes told Farah that all he ever wanted was to be in a loving family like hers, and that he wondered whether he would have pulled the trigger if his childhood had been more like Shelby’s. At the end, they prayed together. They wanted to hold each other’s hands, but the officers in the room wouldn’t let them.

In the years since, Farah has been working with youths whose situations remind her of Rhodes’s. Rhodes told me in emails from prison, where he is serving a life sentence, that his conversations with Farah—and her willingness to forgive him—have motivated him to mentor younger people incarcerated alongside him. “One of the things me and the mom talked about is to promise her I would do as her child was doing,” he wrote, “which is helping others in the time of need.”

For Nelson, the case was a revelation. Without a trial or a death sentence, she’d met the wishes of a victim’s family, even if she could never fully repair their loss. Nelson began learning more about victim-offender dialogues and urged her staff to read the work of Danielle Sered, a pioneer in the “restorative justice” movement, which is gaining currency amid calls to upend America’s criminal-justice system in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. In 2008, Sered founded Common Justice, a Brooklyn-based organization that was the first in the nation to offer victim-guided alternatives to incarceration for adults charged with violent felonies such as assault and robbery, though not murder. With approval from the local prosecutor and court, her group brings victims and perpetrators together to agree on the damage done by a crime and how to fix it. Defendants may be required to take anger-management or drug-treatment courses to reduce their danger to the community, or to attend school, perform community service, or help the victim in concrete ways, such as repairing things that were broken during the crime.

At least 35 states have tried various forms of restorative justice, as have cities from Baltimore to Oakland, California. There has been no definitive national study on the effectiveness of the practice, but one 2007 analysis of programs in the United States and three other countries found evidence that they at least temporarily lower recidivism, along with reducing victims’ post-traumatic stress and desire for violent revenge.

Usually, restorative justice is used for nonviolent crimes, especially those committed by juveniles, or to help victims heal when the legal proceedings are over, not as a replacement for prosecution. The Washington, D.C., prosecutor’s office is one of few nationwide with an entire team that holds victim-offender discussions in exchange for reduced sentences, and the unit does not handle homicides. Seema Gajwani, who heads the program, told me that she wouldn’t consider doing so, because the trauma of a murder is so severe.

Quietly, just a few weeks before Debbie Liles was killed, Jacksonville’s new state attorney became the only prosecutor in the country to offer this “menu option,” as she calls it, to families of murder victims. “When you lose someone to homicide, I presume you think about that loss every day of your life,” Nelson told me at her office last summer, while swiping through a smartphone app that alerts her every time there’s a shooting in her city. “What I learned was that it’s common to want things that prosecution alone cannot provide.”

Deborah and Michael Liles grew up in a working-class section of north Jacksonville. After the high-school sweethearts married in 1975, Mike worked at a bank and later helped run a day-laborer business, while Debbie stayed home with their growing family. At the dinner table, she quoted scripture to teach her children principles of charity and forgiveness, and she later became the children’s-choir director at their Southern Baptist church.

Debbie and Mike Liles raised their five children in Jacksonville. She initially stayed home with the kids, before becoming a music teacher in the public schools.

In the mid-’80s, the Lileses, who are White, bought a ranch-style house with Spanish archways and ornate roof tiling. Their neighbors called it “The Castle.” In the kitchen, Debbie hung a handmade sign that read, “When the smoke alarm goes off, dinner is ready.” In the living room stood the upright piano she played for her family at night: mostly Bach, Chopin, and Paul Simon. Eventually, Debbie became a music teacher in the public schools, buying instruments for her classroom and staging musicals with props from yard sales. She was adored by her students, who would see her in the neighborhood and shout, “It’s Mrs. Liles! It’s Mrs. Liles!”

Jacksonville, like many other parts of the country, was racially segregated by design. Decades earlier, city planners had used redlining to set apart “colored districts” on land near industrial incinerators. The Lileses’ neighborhood was originally all White, but by the time they moved there, the area was mostly inhabited by Black families. In part because officials had long blocked Black businesses from winning city contracts and did not invest in local schools or social services, north Jacksonville’s economy faltered. Stretches of abandoned storefronts advanced to the Lileses’ block, with only cash-advance outfits and tire shops remaining on much of nearby Main Street. Before long, crime began to rise.

One day in 1993, while Debbie was home alone, a stranger knocked at the door looking for yard work. She told him that her husband could probably help him, but the man burst in, punching and choking her. She gave him $50 in cash, her wedding ring, and her car keys. He tied her up with her purse strap and a vacuum cord, then left. When police arrived, they found Debbie covered in blood, begging for someone to hug her.

Debbie recovered, but the break-in posed a challenge to their belief in the Christian concept of redemption. Debbie and Mike told media outlets that her assailant, a Black man named Curtis Head who had an extensive rap sheet of other burglaries, should spend the rest of his life in prison. (So far, he has.) Mike also became the president of the local chapter of Stop Turning Out Prisoners, a group that lobbied for tough-on-crime legislation.

The Lileses bought a house in the mid-’80s that their neighbors called “The Castle.” It is where Debbie was killed by Adam Lawson.

The Lileses bought a house in the mid-’80s that their neighbors called “The Castle.” It is where Debbie was killed by Adam Lawson.

The ordeal did not prompt the Lileses to move. Despite another burglary and thefts of their bicycles, CDs from their car, and, somehow, an entire gazebo from their yard, Debbie and Mike stayed in the Castle. And they stayed as their children moved away to start their own families and careers—Gerald and Michelle chose teaching, like their mother. Gerald told me that his parents didn’t leave for the suburbs in large part because they “didn’t want to be part of the legacy of racism.” That was true even as laws like those advocated by Mike’s organization disproportionately harmed Black people.

More than two decades after the first attack, on the morning of March 23, 2017, Debbie was alone in the Castle during her school’s spring break when a 24-year-old named Adam Christopher Lawson Jr. came looking for an open window. Lawson, who is Black, had recently finished serving a six-year prison sentence for burglary and was living in a nearby trailer park. His life had been hard, to put it mildly. As a little boy, he’d ingested drugs left out by his mother, who was incarcerated more than once on drug-related charges. As a teenager, he stole to feed his drug habit and repeatedly blacked out—and once had to be hospitalized after an overdose.

Prior to killing Debbie, Lawson had been living in a trailer park nearby.

Prior to killing Debbie, Lawson had been living in a trailer park nearby.

Lawson found a way in, likely through the back door, and tried to hide when he spotted Debbie. But she saw him. As Lawson later described it to a prosecutor, Debbie grabbed a golf club; he ripped it away from her, chased her down the hall into the kitchen, and beat her with the club until her skull and jaw shattered. He ransacked the house, loading up the family’s Buick with two TVs, a laptop, a record player, and some frozen food, before driving off.

A few hours later, Mike arrived home on his lunch break and noticed that the car was gone and the freezer in the garage was open, food strewn all over the floor. He went inside and saw one of his golf clubs on the kitchen floor. And then he saw the blood, splattered everywhere.

When Rachel, the eldest of the Liles children, got the call, she was in the checkout line at the grocery store. “Come to your parents’ house,” a police officer told her, without saying why. She abandoned her shopping cart and drove to the Castle, calling her husband’s sister on the way—she wanted to spare her own siblings the terror she was feeling. When she got there and saw the police tape and the neighbors staring from their porches, she jumped out of the car and started running.

Gerald was talking with one of his students on the phone when he got a voicemail from his father. When Gerald called him back, he heard him moaning. “They got her this time, son.”

All five children had made it to the Castle that night by the time their mother was carried out in a body bag. Early the next morning, still in shock, they headed to the house again. But investigators in hazmat suits wouldn’t let them in, even shutting the blinds. It was the first of many times over the coming months that they would feel marginalized in the pursuit of justice for Debbie.

Determined to help find the killer, the siblings hatched a plan. They canvassed nearby businesses and churches for security-camera tape, then spent hours scouring the video, hoping to catch a glimpse of their parents’ stolen Buick speeding off after the crime. When they asked for footage at a funeral home, a service was under way. They sat through the funeral and then the proprietors helped them go through the recording—making the children late for a community vigil held for their mom.

The family helped the police piece together enough video to show the Buick pulling into the trailer park where Lawson lived. With this and other leads, the sheriff’s office gathered enough evidence to arrest him a week and a half after the murder.

On the day of Lawson’s first court appearance, the Lileses arrived early. The kids worried that their father might try to attack Lawson, the way they’d seen the father of sex-abuse victims lunge at Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics doctor. Earlier that morning, Mike had punched a parking meter.

After the proceedings began, Rachel saw a defendant with bandages covering his face and hoped it was Lawson, because that would mean Debbie had at least gotten a few blows in. It wasn’t him. When Lawson finally entered the courtroom, the Liles siblings recognized him, having spent hours staring at his Facebook and booking photos online. Mike and Gerald were surprised by how short and meek he looked in person. “I was expecting a snarling beast,” Mike told Gerald. “It’s frustrating that that little shrimp is why I am a widower.” After the judge called Lawson’s name and read him his rights, Michelle ran out and vomited in the bathroom.

Adam Lawson reacts to Liles family videos at a February 2019 court hearing.

With the exception of Rockey, the youngest, who opposes the death penalty on principle, even for his mother’s killer, the Lileses were certain they wanted Lawson executed. Gerald, who has read extensively about racial bias in the criminal-justice system, still believes that capital punishment is justified for certain murders. “Justice is a restoring of balance,” he told me, “a wrenching but valid expression of the value of human life.” But as the case continued through more than 20 pretrial hearings, the family grew increasingly frustrated. For Gerald, Michelle, and Dana, attending every hearing meant driving for hours to Jacksonville and leaving their spouses and children for days at a time. Months were spent debating whether Lawson was mentally fit to stand trial. (He did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.)

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The family met regularly with prosecutors, which is more access than many crime victims get, especially those who aren’t White and middle-class like the Lileses. Still, they were shushed by bailiffs for crying and for whispering to one another in the courtroom, and at times were astounded by the lack of consideration they got. Once, a prosecutor stopped the family in a hallway and casually informed them that the medical examiner had reported that the blood vessels in Debbie’s eyes had burst, indicating that she’d also been strangled, not just beaten. This put the killing in the category of “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel,” he continued, meaning that prosecutors could definitely pursue the death penalty. Gerald, typically stoic, slumped down on a bench and sobbed.

Justice is a restoring of balance, a wrenching but valid expression of the value of human life.

Gerald Liles, Debbie's son

Even after months, the family still had many questions for Debbie’s murderer that prosecutors did not need him to answer to prove their case: What did you do with the things you stole? How were you able to move such a heavy TV by yourself? Did our mom know she was dying? Only Lawson could tell them these things, and they started to believe that only they, as Gerald said, “could wring him out like a sponge.”

By the summer of 2018, Lawson had informed his lawyer that he was willing to plead guilty if the death penalty was taken off the table. At a meeting with prosecutors, Mike said he’d consider that deal, but wanted to face Lawson first. Nelson told the Liles family that she was tentatively open to trying a process called restorative justice, which involved a dialogue centered on victims’ needs. She’d used it successfully in two murder cases, she said.

At first, Rachel was relieved. She was also skeptical. If Lawson convincingly apologized to them, would that be justice? Or just some kind of performance art to save his own life? “What even is justice in a homicide?” Rachel told me. “There can only be restoration when there is something to be restored.”

According to Danielle Sered, who has interviewed hundreds of crime survivors—and who herself was raped and has lost loved ones to murder—most victims say that what they most want from the criminal-justice system is safety for themselves and their communities. While some may seek vengeance, those who take part in restorative justice tend to believe that harsh punishment alone only creates further destruction and doesn’t allow something productive to come from their loss.

Many victims also want things the legal process seldom provides: more control over their case; the ability to communicate their pain to the person who caused it; and, especially for families of murder victims, a chance to learn what happened during the crime and why. They rarely get that in court, where defendants have the right to remain silent and an incentive to claim they are innocent, even when they’re not.

The family of Freddie Farah (no relation to Darlene) wanted just about all those things. In 1974, Farah was shot to death in the grocery store he owned in north Jacksonville. For decades, the only clues were fingerprints on a box of cake mix, a can of frosting, and a soda that had been left next to the cash register. Over the years, Farah’s son Bobby, a gregarious salesman who was 6 when his father was killed, asked every cop he knew from high school if there was anything they could do to help solve his dad’s case. There never was.

Then, in 2016, using improved criminal-database technology, the sheriff’s cold-case unit matched the fingerprints to a man living in New Orleans. It was Johnie Lewis Miller, also known as “Uncle Louie,” a famous street performer, who for decades has worn an American-flag top hat and tie and posed mime-like in the French Quarter. Miller, 63, was extradited to Florida to face a murder charge. But when the only living witness to the crime died, the chances of convicting him grew slim.

This happened nine months after the successful outcome in the Shelby Farah case. Nelson decided to try restorative justice again, suggesting that Miller admit what he had done and answer all of Freddie Farah’s family’s questions in return for walking free. He agreed.

On April 20, 2018, Bobby Farah; his mother, Nadya; and his sister Loraine joined Melissa Nelson, a victim’s advocate, and several armed officers in the prosecutor’s office. When Miller walked in with his ankle shackles jangling, he hung his head in shame. Suddenly, Bobby dug into his pocket and pulled out a bullet. The officers reached for their holsters. Holy shit, does he have a gun? Nelson recalls thinking.

Bobby slid the bullet across the table toward Miller and looked him in the eye. “This small piece of metal changed the whole course of our lives,” he said. Then he asked Miller, who I later interviewed, to tell him everything.

This small piece of metal changed the whole course of our lives.

Freddie Farah's son Bobby, right, in a meeting with Johnie Miller, left, who killed his father

Miller said he grew up poor in segregated Jacksonville during the Jim Crow era. One day, when he was 17, he found a gun in a vacant lot. He went to Freddie’s store, where he was a regular, grabbed the cake mix and frosting from a shelf, and shakily raised the handgun. “This is a holdup,” he said. Freddie lunged at the gun to protect a girl who was at the counter—the only witness. Startled, Miller pulled the trigger, killing Freddie.

Bobby pressed Miller further. What did you do with the gun? Threw it on a train. Have you ever told anyone about this? No, and I’ve never forgiven myself either. Did someone put you up to it? No. Did my dad ever do something to you to make you want to kill him? No. In fact, he was a very nice man who let the kids take candy and pay for it later.

Miller’s honesty meant a lot to Nadya, who hadn’t remarried, or even dated anyone, in the half century since her husband’s killing. “I just keep picturing a little boy,” she told me. “I have five grandchildren now, and I can see the childishness, the impulsiveness” of the crime. She told Miller she forgave him.

Nadya Farah forgave Johnie Miller for killing her husband, Freddie, at a grocery store he owned in north Jacksonville.

In court the next week, Miller pleaded guilty and was sentenced to time served: the 344 days he’d been incarcerated since being arrested in New Orleans. He mouthed “Thank you” to the Farah family, and Bobby gave him a thumbs-up. Then he returned to New Orleans, where he still performs as Uncle Louie, at least when a pandemic isn’t keeping him inside.

Late last year, I traveled there to try to find Miller, and eventually picked him out from the throngs near Bourbon Street by his signature red-white-and-blue hat. Little kids came up to him every few seconds, mimicking his pose and giggling at his silent jokes. Later, as he walked the streets in his baggy, tattered white suit, shop owners and homeless people alike called out greetings to him. Finally, we ended up in a dive bar, talking about everything from football and Donald Trump to his love for a city where past sins are forgiven.

Miller said he first agreed to meet with the Farahs in hopes of getting out of jail, but helping them gave him solace too. “I provided something that was wanted: information,” he said. “Not everyone gets that chance in their lives.” Until the dialogue, he said, he’d nearly forgotten about the crime—not literally, but in the way that, as the years pass, one thinks less and less about a beloved family member who has died. “I try to live a joyful life, to bring joy to others—that’s my way of remembering,” Miller said.

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For Nelson, the case offered more proof that restorative justice could complement traditional prosecution, even in a homicide. “What was really surprising and compelling to me was that this man who had initially been resolved not to accept any accountability instead didn’t minimize, didn’t excuse, was genuinely remorseful,” she said.

As Bobby told me, Miller’s “very presence, him answering to me, was the thing that filled my void—as opposed to someone just sitting on death row with all the answers wasting away.” He added, however, that if he learns from this story or anywhere else that Miller has downplayed the murder, he plans to go to New Orleans and stand next to him during his Uncle Louie act with a sign that reads, “This man killed my father.”

As the Liles family’s conversation with Debbie’s killer approached in September 2018, they felt a measure of hope. Gerald wrote Lawson a letter, which was read to him in jail just days before the meeting. “On March 23, 2017, you murdered my mother,” it began. “I am writing to say that I forgive you ... No matter what you’ve done or will do God can still do good in and through you.”

When the day came, the Lileses went through security and made their way toward the office’s law library to wait for Lawson. As the minutes ticked by, the siblings took turns pacing. They wondered aloud whether anyone actually read all those legal books on the shelves, and darkly joked about downloading an app to illicitly tape the proceedings, which were to be held off the record.

The Liles family in the law library at the prosecutor’s office, waiting to meet Adam Lawson.

The Liles family in the law library at the prosecutor’s office, waiting to meet Adam Lawson.

In a secure holding room nearby, Lawson sat in chains, supervised by armed deputies. Melissa Nelson was there, along with the lead prosecutor on the case, Pam Hazel; Lawson’s attorney; and one of Johnie Miller’s lawyers, who was there to help out.

Lawson’s head was in his hands, his legs shaking. Then he started murmuring. “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t. After what I’ve taken from them? I can’t ...”

Do you understand that this is the one thing the family is asking for? the lawyers pressed Lawson. Do you understand that you are saying a big ‘Fuck you’ to this family? But he just kept saying, over and over, “I can’t.”

Miller’s attorney started giving Lawson a pep talk, telling him how well the process had worked in his other case.

“With all due respect,” Lawson replied, “I just can’t.”

After more than an hour, Nelson and Hazel went to face the Lileses, stricken. “I’m so sorry, but he won’t do it,” Nelson told them. “He refuses.”

The family stared back, stunned. They thought they had prepared for every possible outcome—that Lawson would be dishonest or that he would insult their mother’s memory, even that Mike would get violent. But they had not prepared for this.

“I think it was Gerald’s letter,” Hazel said. Lawson had expected the family to be full of rage, she said, not mercy. Nelson hadn’t known about the letter, and when she sat down to read it on someone’s phone, she cried.

“Well, if he can’t handle forgiveness,” Dana said, “then tell him we won’t forgive him.”

While waiting to meet Lawson, Dana Standridge held a space shuttle poster with a note her mother had written to her son on the back. “This picture makes me think of you so much,” it said, “a rocket shooting up to God.”

Mike ordered the prosecutors to keep trying to get Lawson to participate. Meanwhile, the family weighed their options. Using a flow chart that Hazel had drawn for them, Gerald laid out every scenario: They could go to trial seeking the death penalty and probably win, but it would be grueling, and Lawson would appeal, and it would likely take more than a decade before he was put to death. Their lives would revolve around making sure another human being was killed. Or Lawson could somehow be acquitted and do this to someone else’s family. Or they could stick with the deal—Lawson would plead guilty in exchange for life in prison—and try again to meet him behind bars, perhaps after years had passed.

What confused the Lileses most was that this man had the audacity to carry out an extraordinarily violent murder, but not to simply sit down with them. He should be forced to talk with us, they wanted to tell Nelson. You can sentence a man to lethal injection, but not to speak?

“I think he felt an unimaginable amount of guilt,” Lawson’s lawyer, Janet Abel, told me. “Ultimately, he was completely nonverbal.”

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After several hours, the prosecutors returned. “He’s pitiful, like he’s still a little child,” Nelson said. “He just won’t do it.”

In the days that followed, Mike couldn’t sleep. Every time he heard the Castle’s floorboards creak, he grabbed his gun, thinking it was an intruder. He let his dog, which he had recently gotten for security and companionship, chew up a couch and rummage through the house.

The place had become dilapidated and had been burglarized a handful of times since Debbie’s death. In an effort to get Mike to move, his children refused to go inside. When Rachel went to pick up her father for a homicide-victims support group, she’d wait in the driveway. Still, Mike refused to leave—if staying in that neighborhood had killed Debbie, why should he get to escape?

A few weeks after the failed meeting with Lawson, Mike wrote his children an email, saying, “Maybe WE were the ones that were too open” when we were “played” by the prospect of a conversation with Lawson. “I can’t imagine myself even experiencing happiness again outside of spending time with you and yours,” he wrote. “I know HE is as close as a whisper.”

Shortly after that, Rachel’s phone rang at the home-security company where she works—and where she often daydreams about how she could have made her parents’ home more secure. It was someone from her father’s victim-advocacy group who had noticed that Mike hadn’t shown up at events that weekend.

Just as she had the year before, Rachel drove over to the Castle not knowing what she would find. This time, her father lay dead on the couch, feet from where Debbie had been slain. A coroner later gave Mike’s official cause of death as “broken-heart syndrome,” a condition also called stress-induced cardiomyopathy, which in rare cases can be fatal. But Michelle has a different explanation: “The way we look at it,” she told me, “restorative justice is what killed our dad.”

Two years later, Melissa Nelson still has not figured out what went so wrong in the Liles case. Since then, she hasn’t offered restorative justice as an option in homicide prosecutions.

Experts say the case could have been handled differently, that prosecutors should have walked the family through every foreseeable breakdown that might occur, including the possibility that the perpetrator wouldn’t “show up in any number of literal or less literal ways,” as Sered put it. “However much there is something mysterious and almost sacred about what happens” in these dialogues, she said, “the range of outcomes should never be mysterious to anyone involved.”

The Liles children don’t remember the prosecutors telling them that Lawson might decide to withdraw from the process at the last minute, though Nelson says she did mention it. Whatever warnings were given, Gerald told me that somehow the lawyers didn’t “figure out how to acknowledge that the murderer is the one who has in his possession the truth about the murder, which gave him the power to hurt us even more.”

Lawson also should have been meticulously prepared for months in advance, says sujatha baliga, another expert on restorative justice, who facilitated one of the only previous attempts at using the method as a formal part of a murder prosecution, in 2011. Lawson did sit down with Hazel a few weeks before the meeting to fully describe what he did to Debbie, but that wasn’t enough, according to baliga. To build the kind of muscle memory necessary for ballast in the moment, perpetrators need to repeatedly rehearse what they want to say to victims’ families, paying attention to things such as their posture and maintaining eye contact. People who’ve committed violent offenses, especially boys and young men, can be so ashamed of their actions and defeated by the events of their life that they shut down under pressure, baliga says.

She also points out that a trained outside mediator should have been working with Lawson and the Lileses: “When the stakes are so high, you need an experienced facilitator who is independent enough to hold both parties with equal compassion.” In the two years since Nelson’s effort backfired, she said that she has hired someone to guide victims through the restorative-justice process, and that her office will soon partner with a local nonprofit to hold victim-offender conferences for crimes committed by juveniles. She hopes the program will attract grant funding so that the office can again begin offering restorative justice in murder cases, this time with expert staff.

There are limits to more routine use of restorative justice for murder that may be hard to overcome, no matter the will (or resources) of elected officials like Nelson, not to mention that of activists who have for the past few months been demanding a new ideal of justice. One problem is timing. People accused of crimes have a right to a speedy trial, but families in the early stages of loss are acutely vulnerable and may not be ready to face the person who is responsible. A more philosophical but poignant objection to the method is that the primary victim in a homicide case, the one who could best speak to the crime’s harm and consent to more lenient consequences, can’t do so. That person is gone.

Broadly speaking, restorative justice can never be more than a partway measure to curtail violence, social-justice advocates argue, because, just like traditional prosecution, it happens after the fact. To eliminate the harm that we do to one another, they say, would require national investment in alleviating generational poverty often born of racial segregation and expanding mental-health and drug-addiction treatment, among other things. As Rachel Liles put it, “Restorative justice? Let’s have a country that doesn’t make an Adam Lawson in the first place.”

A few weeks after their father died, the Liles children entered the Castle, but they had to put Vaseline under their noses first. The whole place smelled like death and decay. Cockroaches swarmed the refrigerator. Someone had broken in to use the shower.

They were putting the house and everything in it up for sale—except for Debbie’s baby grand piano, which she’d had for the final years of her life. Rachel kept it, and still plays it at night; her mother wrote “Beautiful” on some of the sheet music.

What even is justice in a homicide? There can only be restoration when there is something to be restored.

Rachel Sirmans, Debbie's daughter

Rachel is now pursuing a criminology degree, trying to make sense of what happened to her family. She’s learned that homicide more often destroys the lives of people of color, who are also disproportionately policed and jailed, in many cases for much more minor offenses than Lawson’s. “When your mother has been brutally murdered, it is hard to think clearly,” she said, by way of explaining why she’s immersing herself in the academic study of crime. The family has also taken up a group project of reading Just Mercy, the civil-rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s book about how the punishment of Black men convicted of murder has its roots in slavery and Jim Crow. The Liles siblings aren’t all sure they agree that every person who kills deserves sympathy, but they’re thinking about it.

In the months after Debbie’s murder, Michelle tried to remind herself that Lawson was a little boy once, and that no one ever gave a damn about him, including the state of Florida. But she struggled to hold on to that empathy. At the high school where she taught, when students would come to her class late or stoned, she started seeing Lawson in them. She said she worried that she was becoming someone she didn’t want to be, and that she would find herself in a newspaper under the headline “Teacher Tells Student He’ll End Up Murderer.” Michelle’s grief counselor urged her not to make any major career changes for at least a year, but midway through the fall semester last year, she quit teaching. She is now focusing on raising her children.

The way we look at it, restorative justice is what killed our dad.

Michelle McFatter, Debbie's daughter

Meanwhile, Gerald, who now writes social-studies texts for an online school, continues to wrestle with what justice means in a murder case. “As gut-wrenchingly awful as Lawson’s childhood was, he still had the chance, every day, to make decisions,” Gerald said. “He had the chance to choose to let my mother run out of the house. He had the chance to choose to face us and say, ‘What questions do you have for me?’ It actually ignores his humanity to suggest otherwise.

“So yeah, maybe there’s a kind of restorative justice that is impossible because both parties are broken, and the nature of their brokenness is incompatible with their facing each other,” he continued. “But as a man of faith, I would like to believe that that’s too grim, that there is a transcendence of that, that there is grace.”

Eli Hager Twitter Email is a staff writer covering juvenile justice, family court, indigent defense, fines and fees and other issues; he also works on the "Life Inside" series of essays by incarcerated writers. He was a Livingston Award finalist for his 2017 investigation of the for-profit prisoner transport industry and is a three-time finalist for the Education Writers Association awards.