The case of Evan Wilhelm contains eerie parallels to Conor McBride, and revealing lessons of the potential, and pitfalls, of restorative justice.
Evan was a junior at Florida State University, a pre-dental student and member of Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity. One Saturday afternoon Evan accidentally fired a rifle that instantly killed Ashley Cowie, his girlfriend’s twin sister. Bob Wilhelm, Evan’s father, trembles and shakes his head. “Why did those boys go to a gun show? Why did they buy an assault rifle? Why was Evan fiddling with it in the fraternity house?” Unlike Conor McBride, who shot his girlfriend with purpose, however short-lived his intent, Ashley Cowie’s death was an accident. Evan was charged with manslaughter, a crime that typically receives a ten-year sentence in Florida.
Bob, an attorney, got Evan released to home on reconnaissance. The Wilhelm’s reached out to the Cowie’s to express their sorrow, to no avail. Amy Cowie, Evan’s girlfriend, came to visit, often. One day Bob asked Amy if her parents knew of her visits; the next day they received a restraining order against further contact. An intermediary contacted the Wilhelm’s, offering to meet in a neutral location; it turned out to be a rouse for Amy to see Evan again. During one hearing in Tallahassee Bob positioned himself in the lobby, and when Mr. Cowie went to the men’s room, Bob approached, offered condolences and extended his hand. Mr. Cowie said nothing. Another time the Wilhelm’s were walking from the courthouse parking garage. The Cowie’s approached from behind. When Mrs. Cowie recognized them she screamed and ran the other direction.
Without acknowledgement, without communication, there is no opportunity for restorative justice. Quite the opposite. As the case evolved the Cowie’s position hardened. They began to refer to the ‘murder’ rather than the ‘accident.’ At the sentencing hearing Amy testified falsehoods, according to the Wilhelm’s. It took the judge only a few moments to sentence Evan to twenty years, potential for parole after eighteen and a half. Once the criminal case was settled, the Cowie’s sued Evan, Lamba Chi Alpha, anyone associated with the accident. Though no amount of money could ever replace Ashley they pursued a course of suits and settlements.
“I feel desperate that I can’t do anything to help Evan.” Darlene Wilhelm bemoans a penal system that freezes the relationship of everyone involved at the moment of a crime. Perpetrators are coached to show no remorse or regret; which exacerbates victim’s rage. Our worst moment defines us forever.
With her son in prison, Darlene descended into prolonged hopelessness. Then one day she discovered a beagle on the side of the road, brought it home, nurtured it and sought a home for it. An Episcopal priest adopted the puppy and discerned Darlene’s loss. She invited Darlene to Ecclesia, a non-denominational church that serves Jacksonville’s poor. Darlene became involved in Clara White Mission, serving breakfast to homeless. “You look around you and see the difficulties that other people have. It puts things in perspective. They are real people. They are not objects. We care about them.”
The Wilhelm’s continue to pursue appeal options. They travel three hours each way to Wakulla every other weekend, where they are allowed a Saturday and Sunday visit with their son: one hug at the beginning and end of each visit. They are close friends with Julie and Michael McBride; being parents of promising young men who did terrible things is a powerful bond. “We have a key to their house; they have a key to ours. We are in this together.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“For me, and this has already started, I will be more sensitive to other people. I am so blessed to meet and be exposed to new people. For years, I found conversations tiresome exchanges of what people want of the other. Now, even the smallest conversations are gems of that individual and the greater human spirit. I am more open to understanding others.
So, how will we live tomorrow? Hopefully, personal conversations, talking around a table, will not be lost to our devices.” – Bob
“I will live tomorrow better than I lived today because of increased empathy, gratefulness, wisdom, and heartfelt sorrow for what happened yesterday. It’s hard to be the mom of a young man in prison and have two parents who are near the end of life. I worry about my son, a convicted felon for an accident, who will never vote, never get a job, never have an opportunity for full participation.” – Darlene