Restorative justice helps family heal, convicted killer pay his debt

Published: Jan. 24, 2019 at 6:46 AM EST
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By: Julie Montanaro | WCTV Eyewitness News

January 24, 2019

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) – "I never thought of the relationship as abusive and I never thought of myself as abusive, but then I hit Ann."

The message is part of a public service announcement aimed at teens who find themselves in tumultuous and violent relationships. The man making it is doing time in prison for killing his girlfriend during an argument.

Conor McBride is a murderer. He'll tell you so himself.

But, thanks to something called "restorative justice," his girlfriend's family has forgiven him and together they're encouraging other perpetrators and victims of violence to try it.

"It was a total shock to us. We couldn't process it," Kate Grosmaire said as she recalled that Sunday afternoon in March 2010.

Andy and Kate Grosmaire described a ring of the doorbell and the shock of their lives. Their daughter Ann had been shot and her fiance, Conor McBride, had already turned himself in for pulling the trigger.

"There is no why. I made a terrible mistake. I got angry," McBride said as he sat in prison blues at Wakulla Correctional Institution.

McBride confessed to grabbing a shotgun and shooting Ann during a heated breakup.

"There's not a day goes by that I don't think about what happened and not a day goes by that I don't regret what happened, what I did," he said.

The Grosmaires recalled rushing to the hospital, standing vigil at the 19-year-old's bedside and hoping for a recovery that never happened.

"It was about two o'clock in the morning. I was just standing over her, praying that she would get better and I heard her clearly say just as you and I are sitting here, 'Forgive him,'" Andy Grosmaire said.

Grosmaire says then it happened again.

"I saw a transformation there in the hospital bed with Ann. Jesus Christ appeared with her and I realized it wasn't Ann just asking me to forgive him, it was Jesus."

"That week when Ann was in the hospital, I thought a lot about what Ann would want for us and every time I thought about that I came back to Ann would want us to be at peace,” Kate Grosmaire said. "I knew I would have to forgive Conor to find that peace."

Kate Grosmaire went to visit Conor in jail and did that just days later. Her husband sent a message too: 'Tell Conor I love him and I forgive him.' It was the same day Ann died.

"It seems hard to believe sometimes the forgiveness they showed," McBride said. "I'm the offender. I'm the person who harmed their daughter. I'm the person who killed their daughter and yet they're still showing support. That's amazing. That's not normal."

That's how it started and within months, the Grosmaires would begin exploring the possibility of a "restorative justice" circle.

"We wanted to know what happened. How did a breakup fight turn into the death of our daughter?" Kate Grosmaire said.

It was a chance to face each other and speak freely about what happened that day and the impact it had on everyone involved.

"First, I wanted to tell Conor what Ann meant to us, because she meant the world to us,” Andy Grosmaire said. “He had only known her for a couple of years and we had known her her whole life, 19 years. She was ready to go out and tackle the world and do great things and this is what I wanted to tell him. This is what you took from us."

"Hearing that, hearing the pain I caused and then having to take responsibility for it, those are the two hardest things I've ever had to do," McBride said.

That circle consisted of Conor, his parents and the Grosmaires, plus a priest, a prosecutor and a defense attorney. All of them crowded into a small room at the Leon County jail for five long and painful hours.

"Those concrete walls in that tiny room must have cracked. They should have cracked with all of the emotion that was in that room," said Conor’s mother, Julie McBride.

"It was excruciating," his father, Michael McBride, said.

"That was more painful and more punishing than any amount of time I will ever do," Conor McBride said.

The candor of it all, they say, is in stark contrast to the criminal justice system.

"It's not an easy path. It's not soft on crime. It makes everybody take responsibility,” Michael McBride said. “The judicial system says, 'don't talk to anybody, keep it bottled up.' So, through the whole process, they never say, 'Yes I did it.' They never have the opportunity to say, 'I'm sorry.' They go to prison with all this bottled up anger and aggression and guilt."

When it was over, Conor McBride received a 20-year prison sentence and 10 years of probation. The conditions were partly fashioned by Ann's parents: anger management, volunteer work that Ann would have done and speaking out on teen dating violence.

"I never considered myself abusive, but I was," Conor says in a public service announcement he taped behind bars. “Please seek help."

"Prison was the right place for him to go,” Andy Grosmaire said. “The question was really, how long? And is there redemption for people? And we totally believe there is redemption for people."

'We weren't looking to get a lighter sentence for Conor, we were looking to get a meaningful sentence for him,” Kate Grosmaire said. “It didn't serve us to have him sit in a jail cell for the rest of his life, we wanted something that in some way could pay back for taking Ann's life. You can't possibly pay that debt."

"Their ability to say we're not going to define you by a single moment, that has allowed me to move forward and start healing myself," McBride said. "I have an obligation to change. I have a responsibility to make things as right as possible."

The Grosmaires say spreading the word about the power of forgiveness and the potential for restorative justice has become Ann's legacy.

"If I had not forgiven him with my anger and bitterness, I would have been locked up in a cell right there next to him," Andy Grosmaire said. "It's a scenario I just couldn't imagine and I wouldn't want it for anybody else. There is a door to forgiveness that you can walk through and it's so much better on the other side."

The Grosmaires and McBrides will be sharing their story and answering questions about restorative justice at a documentary screening and panel discussion next week. They, and Tallahassee mother Agnes Furey, are featured in a documentary called “Another Justice.”

The screening and discussion will be Wednesday, January 30 at 7 p.m. at Good Shepherd Church in Tallahassee.