GREEN RIVER — Christal Martin walked into the Rawlins Penitentiary to meet the man who had kidnapped, raped and strangled her mom 25 years earlier. At one point during their conversation, as she looked across the prison table, she didn’t see a murderer.

She saw a child.

A child who had also suffered trauma as well as mental illness. Her tears started flowing, but they weren’t for her. They were for him. She thought about her own three children and the ways that the world can negatively impact young lives.

There was a time when Christal had dreaded even the possibility of coming face to face with the man who had changed her life so drastically. But as part of a restorative justice program that she decided to try, she left her Green River home on that day in early 2018 to meet with him.

After a two-and-a-half-hour conversation with the offender at the Wyoming State Penitentiary — which included reading letters aloud to one another — Christal got back into her car. She cried again — but now they were happy tears. For the first time in her life, after so many years of dealing with emotional baggage, she felt free.

That new feeling of freedom came after one meeting and a year of preparation through Wyoming’s Victim Offender Dialogue (VOD) restorative justice program.

Christal had started the program with a rather skeptical frame of mind. After receiving so much benefit from it, however, she has become an advocate of, as well as involved in, restorative justice. She is now on the board of directors of the Wyoming Restorative Justice Council. Her work there has also led to a collaboration with those seeking to end the death penalty in Wyoming.

Now, Christal is working through another Victim Offender Dialogue (VOD) program with the man who murdered her husband.

ANOTHER MURDER

In addition to losing her mother to murder as a child, Christal also lost her husband when he was shot and killed in Texas in 2014. She and Wesley Brooks had been married for two years. It was a common-law marriage, and the family included Christal’s 9-year-old daughter and the couple’s 2-year-old son. At the time of the crime, however, Christal had moved back to Wyoming after discovering that her husband was using heroin. She wanted to protect the children.

On Oct. 31, 2014, Wesley was called out for a project three days after starting a new job doing drywall and other construction-type work. On the way home, his boss shot and killed him in the company truck. He placed the body in a fire pit and burned it. They were both high on meth when the crime occurred, and Christal attributes the murder to paranoia caused by meth-induced psychosis.

Wesley’s boss was pulled over the following morning, and law enforcement found blood in his vehicle. He confessed to the crime. Through a plea deal, the offender received a 45-year prison sentence with the possibility of parole after 21.5 years. He had no prior criminal history.

Christal will soon meet with her husband’s murderer. Their conversation will be the culmination of the Texas Victim Offender Dialogue (VOD) program that they’ve both been working through. Due to a confidentiality agreement as part of the VOD process, she is not sharing his name.

Christal expressed hope concerning the upcoming meeting. She expects healing and help from the encounter, not only for herself and her kids, but also for the offender. He has the opportunity for a second chance at life since he could get out of prison in about 15 years. Through the restorative justice process, Christal hopes he can see that she has worked on forgiveness, and that he can work on his own forgiveness and have some form of hope for himself.

For Christal, it has been a long, difficult road to this point.

TRAUMA’S IMPACT

In 1993, Christal’s mom Stella Martin was kidnapped from a convenience store in Green River, raped and murdered. The offender, a Rock Springs resident, was caught and received five life sentences. At the time of the murder, he was on parole after serving a prison term for previous sexual assaults.

A single father at age 34, Christal’s dad worked a lot of hours and did the best he could for 8-year-old Christal and her teenage brother. He had to deal with his own trauma as well as that of his kids.

Trauma’s impact on Christal’s life intensified as she reached her teen years. She had missing childhood memories as well as behavioral issues including self-harm and underage drinking. She clashed with her father. She started smoking marijuana at age 13. Although part of the problem came from a desire to be accepted, Christal attributes most of her behavior to emotional pain. It was so bad that she turned to other destructive things in an effort to keep from feeling that intense emotional hurt.

Because of her self-mutilation and other behaviors, Christal was sent to treatment facilities twice as a teen. When she got out the second time, she made a decision to go into foster care as she waited to be emancipated. She realized that she had caused harm to her dad and wanted to avoid confrontation with him. She worked hard to become financially stable and get out on her own. After earning a GED, she attended Western Wyoming Community College. She later went on to study criminal justice.

Before she decided to pursue a criminal justice degree, Christal attended a parole hearing over the phone for her mother’s murderer. Although he was not eligible for parole, Wyoming law permits offenders to come before a parole board after serving at least 10 years. Family members of victims are allowed to participate.

It was a conference call lasting about 30 minutes. Christal told the parole board that she had forgiven the man who murdered her mom, but she did not want him to be out of prison. He should be required to complete his sentences to the fullest. Still, she told them, she had moved on in her life.

The moment she hung up the phone, Christal broke down. She cried for about two hours in the shower — just hurting.

“There was so much pain — reflecting on that harm — that crime that had been done to my mother that impacted so many people.”

Christal decided that what she had experienced was not true forgiveness. This realization was extremely difficult, and Christal was angry with herself.

“How could I sit there and try and convince myself that I had forgiven somebody when I actually hadn’t? How do I achieve that?” she asked.

She wasn’t sure what to do.

THE EXPERIMENT

Christal began studying criminal justice in 2013. After all that she had been through, she was still hurting and messed up. She knew that she had harmed others as well as herself. However, if she could impact one child’s life to help them rise above their hurt and hardships and become productive, that’s what she wanted to do. So, she decided to focus on case management and corrections in her studies.

Christal continued to work on her criminal justice degree even after leaving her husband and coming to Wyoming. Frequent breaks were required in her studies, both because of the difficulties of being a single mom and also due to the impacts of her husband’s murder and other problems her family faced.

Through everything, Christal never gave up on pursuing her degree. One of her classes was on criminology — the study of the causes of crime and deviant behavior. After doing a report that included information on restorative justice, Christal thought, “This is crap. There is no way that restorative justice is that impactful. I just don’t see it.”

After more thought, however, Christal decided that she would be the perfect person to test it on. She contacted her victim coordinator through the state of Wyoming and found out about the Victim/Offender Dialogue program. Christal was told that in order to go through the program, a volunteer coordinator would have to be available. In addition, the offender would have to agree to participate. She and the offender would both have to make it through the detailed, lengthy program. It all came together, and the process began.

At the beginning, Christal thought that the VOD program would increase her understanding of the criminal mindset, as well as enable her to experiment with this program that was “supposed to be so sufficient.”

“I didn’t have high hopes at all,” she said.

Throughout the process, Christal had to answer probing questions. How did this offense cause you harm? How did this impact your life?

“All of those different things you don’t think to ask yourself while you’re going through the trauma,” she said.

Even just by answering those questions, Christal was able to start processing through some of the things that she had never been able to before, including the fear of ever having to see the murderer and feeling like some day he would get out of prison and hurt someone else.

“OK, maybe this program really is working,” she started thinking.

FINDING PEACE AND OFFERING FOREGIVENESS

As the restorative justice program progressed, Christal discovered she was finally finding the peace that had been so elusive.

She was also learning forgiveness.

Christal thought about the things she’d been taught by her dad, grandmother, grandfather, and her church — including the importance of Christlike living.

“If Jesus could forgive the people that nailed him to the cross and caused him those harms, why can’t I forgive?” she thought.

She also considered the ways she had been shown forgiveness despite the fact that she had harmed the people she loved the most by her own behavior.

“Because of their forgiveness, I was able to start healing and moving forward in my own life.”

Christal was thankful that her family and a best friend from childhood provided constant sources of support for her no matter what.

It was through the mediation of the VOD program that Christal’s gaze turned to her mom’s murderer in a different way. She started thinking about the fact that he was dealing with mental illness as well as emotional trauma. With these types of issues, there are often red flags — signs that people might fail to see as parents, as teachers, as neighbors, as a community. Christal knew her mom’s murderer hadn’t received all the tools and support he needed.

When she talked to the man who killed her mom, Christal learned that he did not know how to love.

As part of the process, Christal and her offender wrote letters to read to each other at their meeting. She wrote him a four-page letter explaining how his actions had harmed her and her family. She also told him how she realized that harm had been done to him as well and how she had found forgiveness.

After receiving so much help from the victim-centered VOD program, Christal knew that she needed to be a part of furthering restorative justice in Wyoming.

GETTING INVOLVED

Within a month of the meeting with her offender at the Wyoming State Penitentiary, Christal called her victim coordinator to find out more about restorative justice in Wyoming and how she could get involved. She soon became a member of the Wyoming Restorative Justice Council and later accepted a position on the board. The council meets once a month to discuss ideas and projects. The board is entirely volunteer.

Christal’s hope is to help expand restorative justice programs and principles beyond victims and offenders, bringing them to the juvenile justice system, reintegration systems for those facing parole, and even conflict management in schools.

Through her work on the Restorative Justice Council, Christal came into contact with people working to repeal the death penalty in Wyoming. Through all her trauma, Christal said she never supported the death penalty. When asked to share her story by a person from the group Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, she agreed. Christal spoke at two events hosted by the group in Gillette in September. She will also be speaking at a virtual event on Oct. 29.

Despite everything she’s been through and the difficulty of working through her own trauma, Christal has found the healing and forgiveness she sought for so long. She is just a handful of classes away from finishing her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, and she remains committed in her efforts to help others find healing and make positive changes in their lives.

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