OPINION: What one crime victim taught me about forgiveness — and our justice system’s roadblocks against it

In May 1986, Anchorage businessman Andy Twogood’s car exploded. Andy survived – blind and disfigured for life. His employee, Fred Neubauer, suffered permanent injury to his right arm. An investigation linked four defendants to a contract murder attempt targeting Andy.

I prosecuted the case and recently revisited it. The sentencing was two days of witnesses testifying, lawyers arguing, the court fact-finding, the defendants providing statements and the final imposition of sentences.

At one point, Andy was permitted to speak. Viewed retrospectively, his words have me questioning our criminal justice system. It should have us all questioning. Back then, I was a too-unquestioning principal in that system.

Andy spoke directly to the defendants — his scarred, unseeing eyes covered by dark glasses.

“I felt it was necessary to speak to you four individuals. Your involvements are varied. Your reaction to this situation is varied. My reaction to you, individually, is varied. Even though we were all involved in it, each one of us has a position that is individual.”

Andy described how the bombing had changed not only his life, but the lives of his family and friends. He noted it had done the same to the defendants. He spoke of his future and theirs — that he wasn’t defeated and intended to make the best of his circumstances, that they could choose to do the same.

Then Andy said,


“I’ve had a desire to speak to you individuals. I have wanted to tell you that I can forgive you for what you have done to me. Other individuals tell me that I’m crazy. I don’t feel that holding a grudge against any one of you is any value to me. I know it’ll be of no value to anyone else, especially you. I would like the opportunity to be able to communicate with each of you individually, at a future time. … I would like to hear from you.

“I’ve had trouble getting information about what had happened to you. … I’ve been unable to get any direct input as to how you feel about what you’ve done. How it’s affected you or how our relationship is going to be in the future. I feel that this is incorrect, but I have no control over that.”

I knew Andy possessed a deep faith. He believed forgiveness was important for his soul and the defendants’, and he needed the defendants’ participation to find such forgiveness.

Andy visited two of the defendants in prison. He had to deceive the guards because the system had a “no contact” order in place. Andy forgave these defendants. He subsequently testified on their behalf at their first parole hearing and was instrumental in gaining their early release. They, in turn, went on to redeem their lives.

I was solicitous of Andy during grand jury and trial. But once I got convictions, I hadn’t asked what he really wanted or needed from sentencing. Our entire system pays little heed to that — beyond permitting a victim impact statement and, sometimes, ordering restitution, neither of which I saw heal victims.

What Andy sought has since become known in western culture as “restorative justice.”

While long a part of Alaska Native culture, it’s radically different from our conventional justice system. Rather than “punish” the criminal, restorative justice seeks to “repair” the harm caused by the crime. It seeks a just outcome through understanding and responding to the needs of the victim, offender, and community through mediated conversations.

Restorative justice is rising. Victims say it empowers them and helps them heal. Offenders say it aids their rehabilitation. There’s strong evidence it reduces recidivism – especially amongst youthful offenders.

In 2014, our state supreme court added Criminal Rule 11(i) and Delinquency Rule 21(d)(3) and 23(f) concerning restorative justice programs. There is a process for “tribes, ethnic groups and other communities” to apply to courts for restorative justice sentencing with mechanisms in Kotzebue, Nome, Unalakleet, Utqiagvig, and Kake.

There’s a limited program in Fairbanks for certain nonviolent offenders. However, beyond Andy’s experience, case studies indicate restorative justice can be especially impactful for violent crime victims and offenders.

The change to Rule 11 mentions “victim/offender mediation.” So does an Alaska Judicial Council Handbook for Victims of Crime. I searched for how an individual victim in Anchorage might receive such mediation.

I spoke with:

Retired judge Eric Smith, who has been instrumental in tribal-based restorative justice.

• The Special Projects Coordinator attorney for Anchorage’s trial courts.

• Staff at the Office of Victims’ Rights.

• A lead advocate with Victims for Justice.

• Staff at the Alaska Judicial Council.


None knew of a process for an individual victim to receive victim-offender mediation. I emailed the only website for such service that I could find in Anchorage and received no reply.

Individual crime victims in Alaska should have a statutory right to restorative justice with willing defendants. They should be informed of the right and have a process for implementing it. Colorado, a national leader in such legislation, could serve as a model. Lacking this political will, the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center could consider applying for a U.S. Department of Justice grant that funds universities to coordinate restorative justice with the court system.

It’s time to remove the roadblocks to those crime victims who want the reparation that forgiveness offers. It’s also time to tap this rehabilitative power for defendants and its reduction in recidivism. Alaska has the worst recidivism rate in the nation. Shouldn’t we try something that reduces future crime while healing current victims?

Val Van Brocklin is a former state and federal prosecutor in Alaska who now trains and writes on criminal justice topics nationwide. She lives in Anchorage.

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Val Van Brocklin

Val Van Brocklin is a former state and federal prosecutor in Alaska who now trains and writes on criminal justice topics nationwide. She lives in Anchorage.