Misty Wallace and Keith Blackburn. (Photo: Matthew Detrich)

How One Woman Was Able to Forgive the Man Who Shot Her

Restorative justice can decrease recidivism among violent offenders and increase feelings of well-being among victims.
Sep 19, 2016· 11 MIN READ
Jessica Pishko has a law degree from Harvard University and an MFA from Columbia University. She writes for The Atlantic, Pacific Standard, and others.

It has been almost 25 years, but Misty Wallace still tears up when she talks about the day in mid-October 1992 that she thought she would die. Now, Wallace is a soft-spoken but determined mother and wife who wears her blond, wavy hair in a no-nonsense ponytail that highlights her patient face. Back then, she was only 18 and a high school senior looking forward to attending college on a softball scholarship to study nursing, hoping to just “enjoy life and live life.”

“It was my year, my time,” she said.

Wallace recalls fighting with her boyfriend earlier that night, dropping him off, and thinking, “I wish I was dead.” The memory stuck with her because of what happened later.

She stopped to call her parents from a pay phone in an Indianapolis Burger King parking lot on her way home from visiting haunted houses with friends when a man approached her and asked if she was done with the phone. She told him that she was and hung up the phone, and the man shot her in the side of her face and jumped into her car. She says she will never forget the “calm look on his face, like he really wanted to use the pay phone.”

“Please help me,” Wallace called out. But her assailant left her on the ground, bleeding and in pain, her ears ringing from the shot, her face burned from the gunpowder.

Lying beneath the front wheel of her blue Mustang, by the phone booth, Wallace prayed that the car wouldn’t start. It didn’t. The assailant fled, and a stranger on his way home from work stopped to help Wallace, saving her life.

Misty Wallace. (Photo: Matthew Detrich)

After multiple surgeries, Wallace remembers being in a hospital room, surrounded by her family members, who were in tears. “The hardest part,” she said, “was that I knew something was really wrong. I didn’t know what…. I said good-bye. I grabbed their hands so they knew I cared.” Wallace was still unable to speak. “That’s when I realized I could die at any point,” she said, wiping her eyes at the memory.

Her assailant was Keith Blackburn, who was also 18 and, as he puts it now, in trouble with gangs and drugs, quickly sliding downhill with no end in sight. He had once tried to shoot himself in the head and was saved only because his nine-year-old nephew leaped toward him and pushed him so that the gun shot a glass sliding door. That night, he had been on a robbery spree with his friends and needed a getaway car. So he decided to shoot Wallace and take her Mustang. The crime was wholly impersonal, just a means to an end.

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“For a long time, I denied what I had done,” he told me. He felt about the shooting as he would about a dream, even though he was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison for attempted murder. When asked what motivated him to change, he said that after he realized he didn’t want to spend his life behind bars, a fellow inmate told him to “change his nouns—the people, places, and things.” After that, Blackburn was transferred from his solitary cell to a group dorm, where he met a man who discussed passages from the Bible with him and made him rethink his relationship to himself and the world. He began to take responsibility for his crime and realized what he had done and how many people he had hurt.

Now Blackburn is a chaplain for the Indiana Department of Corrections and volunteers for Bridges to Life, where Wallace works as a regional coordinator. At a recent orientation meeting in Indianapolis in a church conference room, Blackburn tells the powerful story of the organization and how it has helped offenders take responsibility for their actions. When he talks about it, he means himself as well. He recognizes that by shooting Wallace, he hurt her more than he can ever repay.

He is even able to make jokes about his unusual situation, saying, “I now avoid bars,” and laughing in his oversize manner. Blackburn is a large man who speaks loudly; he is fun to be around and shows me photos of himself and Wallace on trips—visiting the set of The Shawshank Redemption, for example, and eating dinner in New York.

But Blackburn is incredibly earnest when it comes to his calling, which is how both he and Wallace describe their involvement in Bridges to Life, a restorative justice program founded by John Sage in 1998, after his sister was murdered by two teenagers in Houston. When he discovered that the impending execution of the offenders wasn’t satisfying he decided that he needed to find a way to forgive the men who had killed his sister. The program grew to include 67 programs in Texas and seven in Indiana. Blackburn and Wallace now often give talks together, usually scripted so that Wallace tells her story first, and then Blackburn rises from the audience to introduce himself as her shooter.

Wallace says that the whole process would not have worked if Blackburn hadn’t taken personal responsibility for his crime and shown remorse. She recognized right away that his apology was “true hearted” and that the process “was for me, not for him.”

The idea of taking personal responsibility is the key to restorative justice, a term generally used to describe a non-adversarial process in which victim and offender meet in a form of forgiveness and reconciliation. Restorative justice is an outgrowth of the victims’ rights movement, which began in the 1970s and ’80s when crime victims started to lobby for more rights in the judicial process. These groups, still powerful, generally requested higher penalties and sanctions for crime. But restorative justice focuses on healing and moving forward.

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The most basic form is known as the victim offender dialogue, in which a victim and an offender—along with a trained mediator—meet face-to-face. It gives the victim a chance to share his or her suffering and ask questions, and the offender has the chance to apologize and offer to make amends. The process is not quick, because both parties need to be adequately prepared to face each other in what can be an emotional conversation.

In Wallace’s case, the process involved a lot of questions. For example, at trial, Blackburn wholly denied his involvement in the crime. This bothered Wallace for a long time; while it’s common for defendants to plead not guilty, to Wallace it was a personal affront. “He never once looked at me during trial,” she said. During the dialogue, she was able to ask Blackburn details about the crime that she didn’t learn during the trial.

Often, the offenders don’t know exactly what happened. “Offenders don’t know the whole story,” Wallace said. For example, Blackburn did not know what happened to her after he shot her, nor the extent of her injuries.

Bridges to Life, which operates solely on private donations and receives no support from the state, is faith based, meaning that its notion of forgiveness is heavily influenced by Christian theories. Inmates read Bible passages during the 14-week course, although no religious affiliation is required. Many restorative justice programs are informed by religious notions of forgiveness, calling to mind the people of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the church that forgave Dylann Roof after he killed nine people at a prayer meeting. One volunteer at the meeting who had been a Bible study leader suggested that the Bridges to Life program has more potential to spread religious ideas because it is less focused on Christianity than on self-improvement.

While examples of restorative justice exist, they tend to be the exception rather than the rule. It’s generally not something used with victims of violent crime. Still, does the process of restorative justice hold promise for reducing prison populations?

Insight Prison Project began in 1996 at San Quentin State Prison—it’s the oldest prison in California and houses about 4,000 inmates as well as California’s death row—and now operates in 15 prisons across California. The group sponsors several projects, including victim offender dialogues and victim offender education groups, which are yearlong programs in which inmates learn accountability, write about and confront the impact of their crime, and meet with a “surrogate victim”—someone who was the victim of a violent crime who shares his or her story and trauma with the group. They’re intended to be a way for the members to understand and appreciate how violent crime affects its victims.

Leonard Rubio was sentenced to 20 to life for second-degree murder after shooting his 15-year-old girlfriend and killing her. He spent 23 years in prison before being paroled in 2010, and he now sits on the board of Insight Prison Project. As an inmate at San Quentin, he participated in VOEG and became an on-site facilitator for the group. (Another unique feature of VOEG is that it includes current inmates as facilitators, along with outside volunteers, which allows the participants to have access to someone to talk to in between weekly sessions.)

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Rubio said that through his participation in VOEG, he learned not just about accountability but also about the innumerable people he had hurt, from his victim’s family to his mother, who was shunned because of his crime. The process made him realize how a violent act can rip a community apart. Even though the family of Rubio’s victim has declined to participate in the restorative justice process, Rubio works with other groups of inmates. “It’s an honor to see the changes that people make,” he said.

Leonard Rubio near his home in Richmond, California.

Describing the work that goes on inside the prison, Rubio said that what becomes apparent is the gravity of the interaction with the surrogate victim and the men’s willingness to “expose themselves and expose that vulnerability.” The men show vast changes in personality and demeanor; they are more thoughtful and begin to consider actions from different points of view. Restorative justice also requires getting in touch with such emotions as compassion, empathy, and regret, none of which are particularly welcome in a prison setting, where asking people about their crime is forbidden and a tough exterior is necessary for survival. A 2010 report from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency indicated that inmates who went through Insight Prison Project’s programs emerged with better social skills, problem-solving abilities, and self-esteem, attributes that are predictors of future crime.

Another positive aspect of restorative justice is that it flips the traditional narrative that crime victims want tougher policing. According to a 2016 report by the Alliance for Safety and Justice, crime victims want less punishment and more rehabilitation; less jail time; and more education and job training. Twice as many victims prefer a criminal justice system that rehabilitates over one that punishes, the survey found. This suggests that the community, crime victims, and offenders are not as far apart as some politicians would like to argue.

But while some prosecutors and officials campaign on the assumption that the victims of crime are in favor of longer and tougher prison sentences, there is no research to bear this out. Instead, there is evidence to show that with the proper mediation and preparation for both victim and offender, forgiveness, something bigger than vengeance, can be reached. These programs seem to work well because they demand accountability and give everyone a stake in the process.

Wallace and Blackburn met next by accident rather than by design, or in Blackburn’s version, it was ordained by fate. About a month after the crime, Wallace recalls that she went out for a drive, staples down her face and still wearing a neck brace, when she found herself face-to-face with Blackburn, who was in his car, stopped at the same intersection. “I remember his face,” she said, as well as Blackburn’s baby-blue car with tricked-out rims and spinners. She wrote down his license plate number and called the police. He was quickly arrested.

Later, in 2001, when Wallace found out that Blackburn had been released, she was terrified and went to the courthouse to file a restraining order against him. There, a man asked her where the courtroom was. It was Blackburn. She says that she nearly left the courthouse, but her brother encouraged her to go through with the process. During the hearing, Wallace’s brother told Blackburn, “There’s nothing you could say to make this right.”

Wallace explained that she was angry and suffered from panic attacks and the fear that Blackburn would return and hurt her or her children. “I felt like I had lost a lot,” she said. “I think I was in [a] prison a lot longer than he ever was…. I wanted to take my own life. I knew that I needed to make a change.”

Keith Blackburn, chaplain at the Indianapolis Re-entry Educational Facility, and Misty Wallace, regional coordinator for Bridges to Life Indianapolis, stand outside Plainfield Correctional Facility in Plainfield, Indiana, where they speak and educate inmates on violence. (Photo: Matthew Detrich)

Finally, in 2010, Wallace had had enough of her anger and decided that she wanted to try a different way. So she reached out to Blackburn on Facebook and sent him a message to see if he would talk to her. “I debated it,” she said, “typed, untyped.”

“I’m not angry anymore. But I have questions,” she wrote to Blackburn.

The two corresponded for about a year before meeting, a process that Wallace says was essential to building trust. Wallace needed to believe that Blackburn was sorry, and Blackburn was looking to see if she could forgive him.

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Most jurisdictions have some form of restorative justice, but its use for violent crimes is limited. For example, Boulder, Colorado, started a pilot program for juveniles. Thirty-five states have legislation that formalizes some form of restorative justice for at least nonviolent offenders and juveniles. Yet both the victims and the perpetrators of violent crime remain the least served.

According to a June 2016 paper from the University of Washington, restorative justice can decrease recidivism among violent offenders and increase feelings of well-being among victims. Pointing out that most offenders of violent crime were themselves victims at some point, the report states, “Finally, insofar as the majority of people in state prisons were convicted of a violent crime, programs that entail diversion and include [violent offenders] have the potential to meaningfully reduce reliance on prisons.”

Not only is restorative justice generally cost-effective, if only because it relies heavily on volunteer labor, but there is a meaningful decrease in recidivism. As the University of Washington report points out, offenders, once released, are much less likely to re-offend, and when they do, it is usually in the form of nonviolent parole violations. According to Rubio of Insight Prison Project, only a few men who participated in VOEG programs have violated their parole. Bridges to Life says that the recidivism rate of participants in its programs in Texas is 14 percent, much lower than the statewide average of around 40 percent.

Billie Mizell, the director for Insight Prison Project in California, says that because not every victim is willing to participate in restorative justice and state laws prohibit offenders from contacting victims, the VOEG program could affect a larger number of people if made widely available to violent and nonviolent inmates alike. Instead, victims who are willing can reach out in some states.

You can forgive someone. It doesn’t mean you have to forget what happened to you. I’m free. I don’t have to carry it all around anymore. And it feels good.

Misty Wallace

Wallace says that she knew she would live when she woke up and saw the snow outside her hospital room. But recovery wasn’t easy. Every night, someone had to brush the blood out of her hair; there was physical therapy to learn to move her face again. The gunshot caused her to lose part of her vision and hearing. She lost her softball scholarship and spent years suffering from PTSD and depression.

Wallace says she remembers everything about that night, “all of it.” She still suffers from neck pain and headaches, and the scar across her throat is a fading but visible thread of scar tissue that is a constant reminder of the bullet that went through her left cheek and nestled in the upper two vertebrae of her spine.

While she is at peace with herself and says that she has found the cure she needed, she is also honest about the process of feeling hurt and angry. “I always look over my shoulder,” she said. But “life in general is so much better.”

In Wallace’s mind, victims need to go through the stages of grief before they are ready to forgive, and she strongly believes that victims need to be adequately prepared and ready before facing their offender.

It doesn’t always work. She says that her family members aren’t quite ready to discuss the process with her, although they tell her that she has their support. Her sister has come this evening, and Wallace is happy to see her moving in the same direction. We talk about the fact that it might be harder to forgive someone for harming a loved one than for harming you and how people have to come to terms in their own time.

Wallace describes her initial fear of entering prison, her fear for her physical safety. But volunteering to lead programs gives victims like her a chance to take ownership of their life and provides a sense of purpose.

Yet, in light of a criminal justice system that leaves the majority of victims feeling unsatisfied and results in a recidivism rate of around 77 percent within three years of release, restorative justice promises something different, a path for those who choose to take it when they are ready.

“Eventually, most people come home. Who do you want living next door to you?” Rubio, the Insight Prison Project board member, said.

For Wallace, the process brings freedom and relief after years of trauma. “You can forgive someone. It doesn’t mean you have to forget what happened to you,” she said. “I’m free. I don’t have to carry it all around anymore. And it feels good.”

Violence and Redemption