Four young men who assaulted and robbed two Unitarian Universalist Association employees in New Orleans during the 2017 General Assembly, leaving one seriously injured, were sentenced on May 22, 2018, to prison terms ranging from three to eight years, even though the victims and New Orleans UUs worked to persuade the judge to consider a restorative justice approach instead.
Victims Tim Byrne, who doctors initially worried might die from his injuries, and James Curran, who are members of the UUA Information Technology Services staff, wrote letters to the judge and district attorney asking them to consider restorative justice, a “community- and relationship-based approach where harms are acknowledged and work is done to repair the damage,” as Byrne wrote. A group of about thirty UUs in New Orleans also advocated for restorative justice, meeting with Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon A. Cannizzaro Jr. and showing up at every court hearing hoping to keep the men from lengthy prison terms, said Leslie Runnels, a member of First UU Church of New Orleans.
After acknowledging Byrne’s and Curran’s letters and other supporters of restorative justice, Judge Camille Buras sentenced all four to prison after each pled guilty to two counts of second-degree robbery. Dejuan Paul, 22, was sentenced to eight years in prison—a 15-year sentence with seven years suspended—and five years of probation. Rashaad D. Piper, 21, and Nicholas A. Pogozelski, 19, received five-year sentences—15 years with 10 years suspended—and five years of probation. Joshua Simmons, 19, received a three-year prison sentence.
“The news was harsh—and yet we were let know that without our presence, it would have been much harsher,” the Rev. Deanna Vandiver posted on Facebook. Vandiver was among the UUs who advocated an alternative approach to the case.
The attack occurred on Saturday night, June 24, as Byrne and Curran were returning to their hotel after dinner in the French Quarter. Caught on a security camera, video of the attack shows four men running up behind Byrne and Curran as they walked along a sidewalk on Bienville Street. One man, later identified as Paul, struck Byrne in the side of the face, knocking him face-forward onto the cement, while the others placed Curran in a chokehold. Both Byrne and Curran were robbed. The story became national news as the video was played on television and widely shared online. The four defendants, who had been living in a shelter in New Orleans for homeless youth, were quickly arrested and incarcerated for a year in jail awaiting disposition of the case.
Byrne, who was unconscious for 24 hours, sustained a concussion and facial injuries, and doctors initially were concerned he might die. Newly elected UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray learned of the attack at her campaign’s victory party; she stayed with Byrne in the hospital Saturday night, and led GA in prayers for his recovery the next day. Byrne stayed in a New Orleans hospital for 10 days before returning home. He lost a number of teeth and is undergoing extensive dental work.
After months of physical, occupational, and speech therapy focused on cognition and memory, Byrne says he is “doing well.” He returned to work part-time after three months and is now working full-time. Byrne said he has no memory of the attack or anything in the hours leading up to it or for several days afterward.
Byrne said the Rev. Elizabeth Nguyen, senior strategist with Side With Love, first suggested the concept of restorative justice to him a few months after the assault, and he was immediately interested. Restorative justice can take different forms in trying to repair the harm to the victims and to the community at large through rehabilitation of the offenders. Byrne said he and his husband “both quickly felt like this sounds better than anything the criminal justice system could do.”
Byrne and his husband, along with Nguyen and Vandiver, who joined by teleconference from New Orleans, met with a restorative justice advocate in Boston to discuss the process. Byrne said he learned that the four men “were of the age where they were deeply affected by [Hurricane] Katrina and were displaced,” and that they had aged out of foster care and had been living in a shelter. He also learned that the UU group in New Orleans was collecting money each month so the defendants could purchase soap and shampoo in the jail.
“I was like, wait a minute, they have to pay for soap? That’s not a luxury. So that crystallized for me that [prison is] just not humane,” Byrne said.
Byrne hoped that he and Curran, along with anyone they wanted to bring as support, could meet with the defendants, and each person could describe what happened from their point of view. “Then there would be some kind of monitored transition where the young men are put on a path to make improvements, whether that be education, training, job skills, and some kind of environment in which they have to follow the rules [with] some consequence for not doing so,” Byrne said. “It’s not a sort of blind liberal trust—if they say they’ll be good, they’ll be good—but it’s not something that takes away their freedom and basic human needs. I’d rather that they not go to jail. My sense is that that is not a system that’s going to improve people.”
Curran agreed, and both he and Byrne wrote letters to the court advocating for restorative justice. Curran, who sustained no serious physical injuries, declined to be interviewed but shared with UU World the letters he sent the court.
“It might be a bit unusual, but I’d like to talk to the folks who mugged me and see if we can work out how to keep it from happening again,” Curran wrote. “I don’t imagine this is some sort of magic bullet, but I do feel the potential upsides outweigh the cost of additional effort.”
In May 2018, Curran sent a second letter. “Please do not punish anyone harshly on my account. I know the situation is a bit more complicated than the wishes of one of the victims. Even so, it feels important to say that personally, I won’t feel any better if the folks who mugged me receive a long sentence.”
But restorative justice is not widely known nor practiced, and Byrne said he had a frustrating conversation with an assistant prosecutor in December. The prosecutor was “kind of dismissive. He said, ‘Yeah, I know you want this thing, but that’s not gonna happen, they could get 20 years or something.’ And I was shocked that they were so easily dismissing what the victims wanted.” Byrne said he was “kind of devastated,” because “I had a feeling if we were successful with this, then it would all have some meaning for both James and me.”
“Recidivism statistics show that incarceration doesn’t stop criminal activity, but creates more of it,” Byrne wrote in a second letter. “We all want to prevent Dejuan, Joshua, Nicholas, and Rashaad from reoffending. In this case, I believe a different approach, one that starts with a real acknowledgement/confrontation on the part of the young men of harms done (and demonstrated commitment to change), and that incorporates services for substance abuse, anger management, and counseling, has the most chance of leading to the desired outcome,” Byrne wrote.
“I realize your office has many constituencies to answer to, not just me. But acting with the support of high-profile victim like us, with the support of multiple local religious and community organizations, could help New Orleanians see your office as one committed to improving public safety through a variety of approaches and maybe provide a better ending to a sad, horrendous story.”
Meanwhile, in New Orleans, a group of about thirty UUs had been working to encourage the restorative justice process on the case. They provided the young men with books as well as money to buy soap in jail. Ten or so UUs attended each court hearing over the past year, starting with the bail hearing shortly after the defendants’ arrests, said Caitlin Shroyer-Ladeira, a member of First UU Church of New Orleans.
With help from the Center for Restorative Approaches in New Orleans, which teaches restorative approaches to conflict, a core group of UUs met with the defense attorneys to describe how the restorative justice process would work in the case, and sent letters to the judge encouraging that approach, Shroyer-Ladeira said. Some of them met with the district attorney, along with Paul’s mother, to advocate for restorative justice in the case, she said.
When Byrne learned of the prison sentences the defendants received, “I was glad they didn’t get as much as they could have, that’s significant, but it wasn’t a victory for anybody,” he said.
For anyone in his position interested in steering a case toward restorative justice, Byrne suggests getting involved as soon as possible, “and be more proactive” since it may require a lot of education and effort to persuade prosecutors and judges to try something different.
Shroyer-Ladeira said she feels “deeply saddened and frustrated” by the unwillingness of the DA and judge “to think beyond the system they are part of. As a parent, I feel horrified and worried that the dehumanizing experiences these young men have had, and will have over the course of their sentences, will further traumatize them.”
An abridged version of this story appears in the Fall 2018 edition of UU World (page 58).