I was writing a thank-you card for a wedding gift when I heard the knock at my door. It was 2005, I was 30 years old, and my life was about to change forever.
I was away from home, staying at a hotel for a school guidance counselors' conference. When I opened the door to the corridor I expected to see my colleagues at the threshold, inviting me to breakfast. But instead, I saw the silhouette of a police uniform filling the frame.
"I'm here about your husband," the officer said. "Are you Jason Staples's wife?"
I nodded, unable to speak. Yes, I am Jason Staples's wife. We'd been married exactly a month.
I grasped to understand how Jason could possibly have done this, feeling love for the person I'd known and repulsion for what he did
"Jason was arrested last night, charged with sexual assault."
My mind raced: What does he mean? There must be some mistake.
But there was no mistake. "I understand that your husband called 911 himself," the officer said, "and that he has given a full confession."
"What happened?" I asked, my words barely audible. The officer didn't know the details of the assault because he was from the Toronto police force. He handed me the phone number of the sergeant in Peterborough and said I should call him right away. He said gently, "I think you better expect that it was ‘full rape.'" I felt nauseated. I could only think, What happened? What happened to you, Jason? Images of Jason as I had known and loved him — of someone who had come so far in his life — flashed before my eyes.
Jason had a criminal past — but we thought he'd moved beyond it
I'd met Jason three years earlier, at a soup kitchen where I volunteered with a group of my students and where he was the head chef. We had an instant connection. On our first date, he told me about his past.
"There is something you have to know about me right away," he said. "I was in prison for 10 years, and I'm on parole with a life sentence."
His disclosure left me breathless, and I sat still as he told me the whole story. In 1988, a few months after his 18th birthday, he killed his 38-year-old female roommate during an argument that got very out of control, very quickly. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was given a sentence of Life-10 — 10 years in prison, then parole for life. He had no prior history of violence or trouble of any kind, and the judge saw his youth and his potential for rehabilitation.
True to expectations, Jason returned to society 10 years later — he'd been a model inmate and was thought to pose no further risk to society. By the time I met him, he'd successfully carried out his parole process and had been living safely and contributing to the community for five years. He planned to go back to school soon and make the most of the second chance he'd been given.
I checked these facts with his parole officer and his psychologist, and in official records. Everything he told me checked out. The reports all stated that the murder was a one-time act of adolescent rage. His reentry to society made him a poster boy for Corrections. He was not considered a risk to reoffend.
Still, I was hesitant to get involved with Jason — he would be on parole for life, which would make traveling (one of my passions) difficult. If we had children, we would one day have to tell them. More immediately, I would have to tell my family and closest friends — this wasn't something I could or would keep secret.
For three months, I struggled to come to terms with the unalterable truth. As I considered our future, I remembered something I'd heard long ago: Forgiveness means letting go of all hope for a better past. In this, I found a way to accept Jason fully, and I was rewarded with a wonderful, fulfilling relationship.
He was my soul mate, and I loved being with him — taking bike rides, watching movies, volunteering together, having long conversations. This was apparent to my parents, siblings, and close friends, who all liked him immensely. When I told them, one by one, about the part that wasn't apparent at all, they were shocked and saddened. But they weren't quick to judge. Like me, they talked extensively with Jason and found themselves able to accept him. We trusted that our justice system had rehabilitated him, and time seemed to have proven that.
Jason and I built a life together with the full support of my family — united in our sadness over the murder he'd committed now more than 15 years prior, but also in our faith that he would continue to live up to his promise of a life contributing to society. Like everyone else who'd helped him start over, my family and I put our trust in him, and there were no signs that he would one day break it.
But now, after three years of building that beautiful life together — Jason's straight-A graduation from art school and budding illustration career, my career steps forward as an educator and counselor, buying and renovating our first home, getting married and planning a family — I was in my hotel room, a police officer standing next to me. Jason was in a jail cell in the basement of the police station.
What happened on the night of the crimes
Once I got back to Peterborough, I heard the whole story. Two women had been afternoon customers in the health food store where Jason worked part time. When the first woman, a 46-year-old, walked in, Jason held her up at knife point, dragged her behind some stock shelves, brutally sexually assaulted her, and then confined her in the basement.
When the second victim walked in, minutes later, Jason held her at knife point, and a struggle broke out. He overcame her by choking her to unconsciousness. He took her to the basement, where she returned to consciousness and he assaulted her. Then he bound both women with duct tape, went out to rent a van, returned, and drove them to our home.
By that time night had fallen, and he carried them into the house and down to the basement, where they bravely tried to talk with him, to rehumanize him.
Officers told me that according to both of the victims' statements and Jason's confession (which matched each other perfectly), Jason left our house around 9 pm and returned to the store, where he gathered a ladder and some rope as he started to formulate a suicide plan.
I lost my salary, benefits, seniority, place of belonging. I was made guilty by association.
Then he returned to our house, where the women continued to talk with him. He switched back and forth from monster to human, terrorizing them and then apologizing. A little after 10 pm he answered my chipper, chatty phone call. When later I realized that during that phone call there were two women injured and terrified in my home, I wanted to vomit.
Jason then left our house and called police from a payphone. He told the officer who he was and what he had done, and he asked them to come and help the women. He planned to drive into the woods to carry out his suicide plan, but when after 25 minutes of watching our house the police still hadn't arrived, he called them again. Cruisers now in the area swarmed in and arrested him, disrupting his suicide plan. That night at the station, Jason gave a full confession that ended with, "Just put me away."
The police told me that given Jason's history and the violence of these new charges, he would be a candidate for the dangerous offender designation, the highest sentence in Canada. He would spend the rest of his life in prison.
"He has a wife. Who is she? What's wrong with her?"
News of the crimes hit the media, and I couldn't return to my home, now a crime scene surrounded by police tape. Privacy was ripped away and replaced by public scrutiny. He has a wife. Who is she? What's wrong with her? Was she part of this?
The police were clear in telling me whose side I was on, no matter what my feelings for the victims might be. When I asked if there was anything I could do to help them, the victim services officer looked me up and down and said sternly, "The victims don't need to hear from Jason's arena."
Some friends drew lines in the sand, too. "Shannon, don't you know these women will never recover? You can't have compassion for them and Jason." Others offered their sympathy and support, as they faced their own conflicted feelings toward the Jason they'd known and the terrible things he had done.
I was in agony — reliving every detail of the violence described to me by the police, putting myself in the place of the victims, feeling their fear but unable to help them in any way. I grasped to understand how Jason could possibly have done this, feeling love for the person I'd known and repulsion for what he did. I was thrust upon a terrifying journey through the justice system, the media, and the social stigma of being the spouse of a sex offender.
The ripple effect of Jason's crimes was widespread, from the victims and their families to my family and me to Jason's boss — the health food store owner, whose life's work was now a crime scene on the front page of the paper — and his family to our friends and neighbors and my school community.
While Jason spent nine months in solitary confinement — or "protective custody," as it was called — I was left on the outside to deal with the aftermath, completely unprotected, an easy target for judgment and blame. My school principal banned me from entering the school without permission and forced me out of my job. I lost my salary, benefits, seniority, place of belonging, and, worst of all, my relationships with students, staff, and parents. I was made guilty by association.
I turned to victim services at the police for help, as surely they could let the public know I had nothing to do with the crimes, that I hated what Jason had done. They could explain that my visits to Jason — news of which had spread in our small town — were about getting answers to my questions, which only he had: Why did you do this? How could you do it? What's wrong with you? Do you know what you have done?
But there was no one to help me. The defense counsel was for Jason, the accused. Victim services were for the real victims, not the collateral ones like me. I didn't fit anywhere. All I could do was put one foot in front of the other and try to find a way through to the other side, whatever that would look like.
Visiting Jason, which I did first just a few days after his arrest and continued over the next couple of years, wasn't about "standing by my man," as so many assumed. It was about understanding my human — the only one in this nightmare whom I had contact with. I wasn't allowed to talk to the victims or even know who they were. The prosecutor wouldn't even look at me, even though I was on his list of victims — Jason also confessed to surreptitiously videotaping me and others in the bathroom of our home on a few occasions leading up to the assaults, crimes of voyeurism.
I pored over books about sexual deviance, pornography addiction, the effects of childhood sexual abuse, and dissociative identity disorder — all suggested to me either by what Jason was disclosing in our visits (he was like a volcano spewing toxins, one that we'd all mistaken for an inert mountain) or by the doctors and researchers I connected with. I needed to try to understand.
I also searched every inch of my own home for clues about what had gone wrong inside Jason — was there anything I should have seen? There wasn't. Even a three-day, four-officer police search of our home had turned up nothing.
Jason didn't give me or anyone else a chance to help him or to prevent these crimes: He seemed to have two completely separate identities, one of which was entirely secret. The murder he committed as an 18-year-old, now 18 years ago, did nothing to prepare any of us — family, friends, or professionals — for his reoffending, and certainly not for sexual offending, though many on the outside were quick to say that I or we should have known. This was a painful judgment.
I'm not alone as a person experiencing judgment, scrutiny, and social exclusion for the crimes of a loved one. With 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States (the world's highest prison population), millions of families are caught up in the ripple-effect of crime. Few have access to counseling or are savvy in dealing with the media. Many face additional barriers like racism and systemic prejudice.
While the justice system keeps people locked up, it also keeps families — mainly women and children — locked down in poverty, shame and stigma. The road forward to a positive future is uncertain.
The two-and-a-half-year trial
Jason's trial went on for 2 1/2 years (despite his consistent efforts to plead guilty), and throughout it I saw and experienced the cold and clinical way "justice is served" to victims, families, and communities. At the end of it, after enormous pain and loss were expressed in victim impact statements, remorse and confusion were expressed in Jason's statement, and the facts of the assaults were reviewed by the judge, all that happened is that one person was sent to prison for the rest of his life and everyone else was just sent home. It was indescribably empty, with no peace or healing to be found. That was something, it seemed, we would each have to find on our own.
After the sentencing, on a beautiful day in May 2008, I watched as Jason — handcuffed and in leg irons — was put into a van and hauled away to prison. He gave a small wave, almost as though he were a child going to summer camp. I didn't see the victims leave, but I imagined them going home to start rebuilding their lives, hoping they had the support I had in my family and close circle of friends.
How I found healing
I tried to rebuild my life, finalizing my divorce from Jason, going to therapy, taking dance lessons, and, yes, even dating. I also wanted to do what I could to rebuild the justice system so that it could have the power to heal, not only the power to punish.
I pursued a social work master's degree, confident that this would give me purpose and open some doors. I focused my studies on trauma and restorative justice. I found research, theory, and evidence that supported and put words to what I was experiencing.
Howard Zehr, the leading US expert on restorative justice, put it the best. He explains that the conventional criminal justice system responds to crime by asking three main questions:
What law has been broken?
Who did it?
What punishment do they deserve?
These are important questions, but they have their limits. They put the state and the accused in the center and victims around the periphery, typically using victims' stories only to achieve a conviction and to influence sentencing. The focus is on retribution.
Restorative justice sees violence not as an assault on the state but on human relationships of trust
The ripple effect of crime through families and communities is seldom addressed, and participation of those affected is minimal or absent. Offenders are sent away to serve time, and in Canada almost all are returned to society having had minimal or no treatment. In the US, the story is similar, only the rate of incarceration is more than 20 times what it is in Canada — the highest in the world.
At its core, restorative justice sees crime and violence not as an assault on the state but on human relationships of trust. Therefore, "justice" is an attempt to restore — to bring back, recreate, repair, or in some cases build for the first time — trust and safety within relationships through accountability, dialogue, empathy and an effort to "make things right." Restorative justice poses three different questions:
Who has been harmed?
What are their needs?
Whose obligation is it to fulfill those needs?
Asking these questions includes and values the voices and experiences of the people closest to the harm, and tries to support everyone. It does not necessarily exclude a component of punishment (incarceration) but does recognize its limits.
Because when we merely lock people up, we seal off much of our own chance to build understanding or have our questions answered. Victims can be plagued by questions their whole lives, questions that only the offenders may be able to answer: Why did you do it? What was going through your mind? Why me? Do you know what you've done? Do you know how you've hurt me and my loved ones? How can I know you won't do it again?
We lock away offenders' ability to be accountable, to make amends, to understand the impact of what they did or why they did it in the first place — what brought them to the place or choice to commit a crime.
We lock down the families of offenders, typically into poverty, stigma, and shame. We often deem victims to be ruined for life. We make pariahs of people who have made mistakes right along with people who plan and carry out murder and harm "in cold blood," rather than getting to the root causes of either type of offending behavior. And all too often, we lock up people who suffer from mental illness, even as we know we cannot punish the mental illness out of a person.
I never had a formal restorative justice process with Jason, but I did have an informal one. I visited him many, many times in prison — for as long as it was helping me move forward. In our conversations, he expressed remorse and accountability, and I had the chance to ask questions and explain how much he'd hurt me and others.
I'm a better, healthier, stronger person for this experience, and I feel fortunate to have had it. I was able to leave behind the betrayal and destruction Jason caused and the anger that threatened to consume me, and to start a new life that is full of love, trust and meaning.
Why I share my story
Going public with my story — first by accepting invitations to speak at justice conferences starting in 2008, and then publishing my memoir in 2011 — gave me back my voice and cleared me from guilt by association. While I felt vulnerable standing up in front of my first audience, and it was painful to relive everything as I wrote it all down, both were healing. Audiences responded well, with compassion and new awareness. They restored my dignity and broke apart the cloud of stigma that was such a threat to my health and future.
I regained my voice, and found purpose in what was otherwise senseless. From the beginning, I'd figured (based on the prison population) that there must be thousands more like me out there — the wives, sisters, mothers, fathers, brothers, friends, and colleagues of people accused or guilty of crimes — but I could never find them. Once I starting speaking out, they found me. They shared their stories, and continue to, to this day.
Like me, they endure public scrutiny, shunning, blame, trauma, and grief. They have empathy for the victims (who were less often strangers and more often other family members) but are asked to choose sides. They need help, and from a public position I can educate and advocate for it. For this, I am grateful.
Shannon Moroney is a restorative justice advocate who now speaks internationally on the ripple effect of crime. Her memoir Through the Glass became an instant best-seller when it was published in 2011, and is now required reading at numerous universities. In 2015 she produced the radio documentary In Harm's Way, featuring the voices and stories of family members of people accused and convicted of crimes. A volunteer with Leave Out Violence (LOVE), she is also a contributor to the Forgiveness Project.
Moroney lives in Toronto, where she is remarried and the mother of twins. Visit her at shannonmoroney.com or on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter @ShannonMoroney. Listen to her read the first chapter of Through the Glass.