Forgiving a Murderer


Thérèse Bartholomew and her brother Stephen Leone

When Thérèse Bartholomew's husband picked up the phone on the night of February 12, 2003, she could tell by the tone of his voice that something was wrong.

An acquaintance was calling to deliver the devastating news that Bartholomew's brother and best friend, Stephen Leone, had been shot and killed a few hours earlier after an argument at a strip club in Greenville, SC.

Leone's death plunged the recently married Bartholomew into a depression, put strains on her relationship with her husband, led her to leave her job as a high school English teacher and, ultimately, put her on a path to pursuing a master's in criminal justice at the University of North Carolina Charlotte.

And it led her to make a film.

The 72-minute documentary, called The Final Gift, chronicles her seven-year-long efforts to come to terms with her brother's death, capped by an emotional meeting with Karl Staton, the man who killed Leone, in December 2010 at Kershaw Correctional Institution in South Carolina. The film, completed in early 2012, was produced by her husband Doug Bartholomew, and has been shown at screenings in North Carolina and New York City. It is available for purchase on The Final Gift's website. In 2009, Bartholomew published an autobiographical account, entitled Coffee Shop God, about her struggle to cope with her brother's death.

In a conversation with Graham Kates, deputy editor of The Crime Report, the Charlotte, NC resident describes how her family adjusted to the idea of making a film about the man who had turned their lives upside down, how anger towards her brother's murderer gradually turned to compassion, and why she believes victims and survivors of crime are often “re-victimized” by the criminal justice system.

The Crime Report: Why did you decide to make a documentary?

Therese Bartholomew: The idea really grew out of the first time I saw Karl. It was about three weeks after the murder, in a courtroom. And my first response was, “I could kill this guy for what he did to my family.” And then that, really quickly—uncomfortably quickly— turned into some sort of intrigue. I wanted to know who he was. I wanted to understand what brought him to this place in his life. Why was he carrying a gun? Why do people in general carry guns?

That grew into this need to understand on a very large scale what people were capable of; why crime happened; why people were victimized. It really became my way of understanding our response to crime.

TCR: What did you mean by saying your thoughts about Karl Staton changed “uncomfortably quickly”?

TB: I started to see him as one of my students. I was a high school teacher at that time and I had always connected very well to students that had what I called “rich” stories. Students who a lot of other teachers did not want to have in their classrooms. Those were the students I loved.

I left the courtroom that day with a real conflict, a sense of, “Was this a betrayal of my brother to see this person as human and to have any sense of compassion?” On my drive back I broke down crying, and I called my husband and I said, “If I forgive this person, does it mean I don't love my brother?”

TCR: Why did you decide to pursue a criminal justice degree?

TB: I saw what happened to my family (and began to wonder) “Why does crime occur? What can we do about this in our communityI had no understanding of the way I felt toward the man who killed Steve, and felt that somehow I might get answers.

TCR: Why were you drawn to restorative justice?

TB: Within the first or second semester of the program, I started finding articles on restorative justice. Most of what I found was on juveniles. I just knew as soon as I found it: “This is who I am; this is why I saw my brother's killer the way I did.” I wanted to make sense of things on a larger scale. My brother's killer was sentenced to 10 years (for voluntary manslaughter) and he had to serve 85 percent of that and I started feeling very responsible. (I wondered) “When this guy comes out of prison, who will he be?”

TCR: What did you hope to achieve?

TB: (Victim-offender mediation) was really the first thing that I wanted to do. I didn't know it was called that, but when I decided to make a film, my first goal was to understand Karl, to hear Karl's story. That was the driving force. I didn't know it was called the victim-offender dialogue. It took almost seven years to get into the prison (where Karl was incarcerated). People repeatedly asked me, “What are you going to do if he doesn't want to speak with you?” And I would always answer, “He's going to meet me. We're going to have a meeting. We're going to film it. It's going to be OK.”

TCR: How did your family react to this process?

TB: All of my family members knew that there was a film project going on, but it took a few years before they were ready to be interviewed for the film. My parents were interviewed first. They understood and knew that ultimately I wanted to meet Karl; that I wanted to get him in front of the camera. My mother had asked a few times about maybe writing him a letter, but she didn't. My father actually said when we interviewed him, “I forgive him because that's what we're supposed to do as Christians, we forgive people; but I don't have any desire to meet him.”

My daughter came to me the day of the sentencing hearing­—everyone else in my family went—but my daughter said, “I don't think I should go … I think I'm going to do something in the courtroom and I'm going to get in trouble and I just think it would be really bad.”

My son Trea did go, and Steve's two children went. And my son even said “Maybe I should have done something in the courtroom.” Almost as if he let his uncle down by not doing something, by not attacking Karl.

As far as my meeting Karl, Trea is probably the most outspoken one. He wasn't angry about my wanting to meet him, but he does not get why I would want anything to do with Karl. At the same time, after having many conversations with him, I think he does understand now my desire to make our society a better place. He's on board with that.

TCR: When you did meet Karl, you shook his hand. Was that difficult?

TB: It's a very strange thing. I had spent all of these years trying to get into the prison to meet him and I had spent almost 11 months getting to know him through exchanging questionnaires and through the facilitator. In our system, it's (considered) an oddity when people do this. There are so many barriers. Even with Karl, I felt a real sense of gratitude for his willingness to participate. Because the truth is, he didn't have to. He wasn't getting anything out of it. He wasn't getting less time. I felt very much like I was given this gift, this opportunity to meet with him.

When I first met him, I felt as if I needed to make him feel comfortable, which is a very weird thing to say. I felt the need to let him know that I wasn't going to attack him; that I had, it sounds silly, come in peace. That I meant him no harm. I know it must have been scary for him coming in there, not knowing what he was going to get.

So shaking his hand, sitting with him, really wasn't as hard as you would think it would be. It really ultimately turned out to be the most powerful thing I've ever done in my life. The most powerful thing and the most empowering thing at the same time.

TCR: Have you spoken with Karl since?

TB: I haven't. I felt such a strong desire to figure out his story, to understand him, to meet with him, to make this film, (but) I've never felt a desire to know Karl beyond that. There are certainly cases when a victim and offender will end up having some sort of relationship after a meeting like that. For me, it just didn't seem natural and right: it didn't need to go any further than that. And I don't think he had any desire at all to keep some sort of relationship, either.

It's standard practice for the facilitator to go back after a week or two and talk about the meeting. Veronica [Swain-Kunz, the facilitator] did that. We had four and a half hours of video from our meeting, and he spoke about several moments from that meeting that were meaningful to him. Specifically, one of the things he told Veronica — even though you don't hear this in the film — when I told Karl I forgive him for what he did, he kind of says, “Well, OK. I really didn't need that.” And he kind of blew it off a little. But one of the things he told Veronica was that it actually was very meaningful to him. To get to hear his perspective adds a whole different level of meaning to that meeting.

TCR: Have there been other victim-offender meetings in South Carolina since yours? Do you see this becoming a mainstream criminal justice concept?

TB: Mine was the first victim-offender dialogue in a violent case in the adult system. Since then, Veronica did another, and the process itself took about a year. I certainly hope this becomes part of the criminal justice system, but it's not a process for everyone. When I look at my own family, I see that. Not everyone would want to do this, but I think it's something that victims should be allowed to do. Right now, across our country, there are a whole lot of places where victims have to fight battles to get into prison. Ultimately that is a re-victimization by the system.

Victims have a right to be heard and to face the person who has done harm to them and their families. As a society we should see the value in allowing these moments of personal accountability on behalf of an offender. There is none of that in our current system. There's no space for reflection and accountability.

TCR: Why did you name your film, The Final Gift?

TB: When my brother died, I looked at my husband and said, 'I want you to know that I'm not going to survive this.' My brother was my closest friend. I could not fathom how I would live an entire life without my brother in it.

I really floundered around like that for a long time. But my brother gave me a gift. From wherever he is, I believe that my brother gave me a desire to see the humanity in the person who murdered him. A desire to make sense of life without him. A desire to rebuild. I've found all of the pieces that help me to have a sense of peace about what happened to him, and I get to take this gift out into the world to help other people.

Graham Kates is deputy editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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