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This week, I spoke to my former colleague at The Guardian, Oliver Laughland, about the aftermath of a 2016 North Carolina murder — and what the case tells us about the growing use of “restorative justice.”
As Laughland reported earlier this summer, the facts are not in dispute. Donald Fields Jr., then 24 years old, pulled out a pocket knife and stabbed his father, Donald Sr., during a heated argument that began over the placement of a TV in their home.
Gutted, the family initially turned away from Fields Jr. and left the justice system to respond in its usual ways. But after some time, multiple family members, led by Fields’ uncle Alex, embraced a restorative justice approach — an alternative to the traditional trial and sentencing process that includes dialogue between victims and offenders. That process transformed the tragedy into what Laughland described as a “pioneering case of compassion in America’s punitive criminal justice system.”
Fields Jr. initially faced a possible sentence of life in prison. Instead, after a lengthy and involved process of reconciliation and accountability, he was released after six years in jail. What follows is a brief question and answer from my conversation with Laughland, who is southern bureau chief for The Guardian U.S. The text has been edited for clarity and length.
Jamiles Lartey: In 2020, reporter Eli Hager — then at The Marshall Project — found that restorative justice was virtually unprecedented for murder cases. How common is it today, specifically for crimes this serious?
Oliver Laughland: There are only a handful of jurisdictions around the U.S. doing this work in the pretrial phase, while the judicial process is still ongoing, as opposed to decades after a conviction. And it’s very different from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Many prosecutors' offices and restorative justice groups exclude certain offenses — like murder and sexual assault — automatically. With Satana Deberry, the prosecutor in Durham, her attitude is extremely different. As a policy, they have not ruled out any category of case. That was a major part of making this outcome — probably the first case of its kind — possible.
JL: Do you think it takes a certain kind of victim or “harmed party” to embrace restorative justice?
OL: From what the prosecutors told me, the answer is yes, and there are lots of different ways that manifests itself. Prosecutors look for what they call “green flags,” factors that can signal receptivity to this approach. One green flag is curiosity. Victims of crime very often, if not always, will have questions about the act of harm. Often, these are questions that can’t be answered in the traditional trial setting, when people are often not inclined to take the stand and answer questions about why they did something — so in the Fields case, that drove some of the openness.
Something else that factored in was that the Fields family had experienced many generations of trauma. Alex Fields grew up in Jim Crow segregation, was very well versed in the disproportionate racial effects of mass incarceration, and didn't want to see his nephew become another Black man lost to the system.
JL: The Fields seem strongly tied to the Christian faith. How did that affect their willingness to go down this road?
OL: The entire Fields family is deeply religious. Some of them decided to participate in this process, and others didn’t, so religion certainly isn’t the only factor. But Alex Fields is a part-time minister, and he decided that he was going to go down this pathway while preaching on Sundays. He was talking about forgiveness and realized he couldn’t give these sermons if he wasn't willing to do it himself.
JL: OK, so how does this actually play out? How does someone go from being utterly irate — as Alex Fields understandably was — to sitting down with the person who caused this harm and expressing care and interest in their feelings?
OL: It was a very slow path that involved multiple stepping stones over many years. The first was that [Donald Fields Jr.] agreed to regular therapy while he was incarcerated. Then he started meeting with his uncle on Zoom once a month. Eventually, other members of the family got involved.
They told me they saw a significant change in Don Jr. — that therapy was having a real effect, and that he had apologized and acknowledged the harm he had caused.
He was then, under a judge’s order, granted conditional release nine months before sentencing. Each of the conditions Don Jr. had to follow, including that he receive mentoring and get a job, were set by the Fields family.
JL: That this violence happened within a family seems to have played a massive role in opening the door to this approach. So, how scalable is an example like this?
Certainly, a lot of violence in this country happens between people who know one another, and family violence is not altogether uncommon.
OL: If the process is done well, it requires time and resources, and of course, the active consent of all the parties involved. By definition, that means you are working with a smaller cohort of jurisdictions and cases. Durham has seen a number of successful outcomes in violent felonies involving strangers, and the DA’s office understands that restorative justice more readily lends itself to instances where individuals already have some connection.
With regard to the Fields case, which is the first homicide case to go through this process in North Carolina, the fact these intimate connections already existed, I think, helped move the case forward, but simultaneously made it more painful as well. Alex committed to sharing his experience in the hope it will speak to others around the U.S.
JL: Fields was in jail for six years while this process played out. Some civil rights lawyers might argue that’s an unconstitutionally long time to be held pretrial. Was that a product of the restorative justice process?
OL: Keeping somebody in pretrial detention for that long is not unprecedented, but it's a very long period of time, and there was a complex mesh of different factors that contributed to that happening. For one, a lot of this was happening during the pandemic, so contact and facilitating interactions was just longer by default.
But there were also benefits in the context of this process, and his defense team consented to the long pretrial detention for that reason. It meant that the District Attorney’s office still had a say in facilitating access to Don Jr. because he was being held by the sheriff's office, rather than in state prison. It also meant that Don Jr. was kept in closer proximity to his family, there in the same city, rather than at a state prison potentially hours away.
JL: Many people’s gut reaction to restorative justice is this idea that it’s shortchanging the victim by letting the defendant off lightly. How have you come to think about that objection as you’ve reported on these efforts?
OL: The judge in this case said something quite profound to me, pushing back on the idea that restorative justice is this act of leniency or “soft on crime.” What he said was that taking accountability is, in many respects, a harder thing than taking punishment.
Prosecutors who are working on this sort of approach have also frequently told me that the process is actually far more transformative for victims of crime than it is for the perpetrators of harm.
The victim expressed feeling a weight — just as Alex Fields did — around sending somebody away for the rest of their life for an act of violence, when that person had also shown an opportunity and willingness to change.