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Laura Araujo’s parents on forgiving her killer and the complexity of restorative justice

EXCLUSIVE: Seven years after their daughter was murdered, Anania and Dr. Lorenzo Araujo, Sr. explain why they would’ve preferred rehabilitation rather than retribution for the man who murdered her.

For many people, the idea of losing a child is considered one of the worst tragedies to befall a parent. In common law societies such as the United States, the only legal mechanism for holding a person accountable for death is through the criminal legal system. If a child’s life ends because of violence, it is natural for parents to seek vengeance against the person(s) responsible.

However, for some survivors, their preference is for the harm to be addressed outside of the criminal legal system and without punishment such as incarceration or death. In a world that equates justice with imprisonment, what would motivate survivors to seek accountability for their child’s death without involving the carceral state or inflicting violence on the responsible party? Does this position align with “restorative justice?”

For Anania and Dr. Lorenzo Araujo, Sr., their desire for rehabilitation instead of retribution lies somewhere in between.

This is their story.

Laura Araujo, an Afro-Latina from the Bronx, graduated with honors from the Art Institute of Philadelphia with a degree in Fashion Marketing. She was adored by her parents who admired her fierce independence. When she began living on her own, Laura eschewed offers of money from her parents, content to live free from the confines of materialism. A young adult convert to Christianity, her ethos to help others and “cause no harm” was exercised in her day-to-day life.

Laura Araujo (Photo: Courtesy of Anania and Dr. Lorenzo Araujo, Sr.)

Laura tutored adults and children learning English as a second language for free. She loved to sing and was fiercely independent. A vegan, she aspired to create a clothing line free from any animal products. On July 13, 2014, her life came to a brutal end when her body was found the following morning wrapped in a blanket, stuffed into a duffel bag, and discarded in the Kensington area of North Philly. She was 23 years old. 

According to Jeremiah Jakson, the person arrested for Laura’s murder, her death resulted from a break-in gone wrong. They had lived in the same nine-room boarding house for just a week when he decided to burglarize her room. Laura walked in on him mid-act and he panicked, killing her in the struggle. Jakson stuffed her body in a duffel bag and dumped her and her belongings outside an abandoned building. Afterward, he drove her car to South Philly and set it on fire, injuring himself in the process.

Police and fire officials linked a man being treated at a nearby hospital for severe burns on his forearms and torso with Laura’s torched car. An unemployed security guard with prior arrests as a juvenile for robbery, theft, and gun charges, while awaiting arraignment, the aspiring rapper attempted to hang himself in jail. Unlike Laura, his was a childhood marred with neglect and abuse. At the time of trial, he was 22 years old.

In 2014, there were 248 homicides in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, out of 1.547 million residents. Thirteen of these occurred during the commission of a residential robbery. Laura, like every other murder victim, is more than a statistic. She is the daughter of my friend, Anania, and her husband, Lorenzo. We became acquainted when our sons became best friends during grade school. Laura and her brother, also named Lorenzo (affectionately called Lorencito since he is the namesake of his father) would sleep over at my home in The Bronx, as my kids did at theirs. Eventually, we all left The Bronx, with Anania and her family relocating to Oklahoma City, where she became a teacher and her husband set up a psychiatry practice after completing his degree. 

The Araujo family. (Photo: Courtesy of Anania and Dr. Lorenzo Araujo, Sr.)

Anania and I have remained intermittently in touch over the years, a friendship forged when our children were kids, and neither of us had grey hair. While researching for my senior thesis on restorative justice, I stumbled across an article detailing Lorenzo’s actions at Jakson’s sentencing hearing. Entitled, “Amazing Grace: Dad forgives daughter’s killer, inscribes poetry book to him,” the piece discusses how he wrote and co-dedicated the book to Laura and Jeremiah, and gave Jakson a copy via a bailiff at the sentencing. The article reminded me of narratives I had read on the applicability of restorative justice in response to violent felonies.

While there is no one singular definition of restorative justice (RJ), the International Institute for Restorative Practices places it under a larger umbrella of “restorative practices,” which “includes the use of informal and formal processes that precede wrongdoing, those that proactively build relationships and a sense of community to prevent conflict and wrongdoing.” Under the restorative justice framework, crime is viewed as a violation of relationships first and foremost. The three key stakeholders within a restorative justice process are the survivor/victim, the responsible party, and the community. 

Crime is more than just a violation of legal codes. It has a ripple effect across the lives of everyone touched by the offense. Unlike the criminal legal system that centers on the procedural rights of defendants and the State’s interests, RJ practices are survivor-driven. In countries where restorative justice is used for juvenile crimes, such as New Zealand and Australia, anecdotal evidence demonstrates that recidivism rates are significantly lower than in other jurisdictions. Survivors report feeling better about the outcomes of the processes than those who engage solely in the criminal legal system.

As the prison abolition movement has gained momentum in the United States, restorative justice has wound its way into popular criminal legal discourse. Regardless of where you stand on the incarceration spectrum, RJ gives survivors a say in what accountability would look like and provides the harm causer a chance to take responsibility for their actions, with or without incarceration, depending upon the type of harm caused.

After reading that Lorenzo Sr. had forgiven the young man who killed his daughter, I reached out to Anania to see how she was faring. I was also curious about the motivation behind Lorenzo’s forgiveness. The last time we spoke was before Jakson’s sentencing, at which time she shared that she wasn’t sure if she was even going to attend.  

Lorenzo’s actions at the sentencing hearing profoundly moved me, and I wanted to know if there was someone within the restorative justice space who had helped him and Anania through their process. In the United States, restorative justice tends to occur in conjunction with the criminal legal system. Were the Araujo’s able to forgive Jakson because they had engaged in RJ? We agreed to speak on the record about their experience and what led them to such a radical position.

In our initial conversation before the formal interview, Anania shared that she didn’t hold bitterness in her heart toward Jeremiah. That, combined with the article on her husband’s response at the sentencing hearing, led me to ask if they would be willing to share more about their emotional process. Restorative justice practices are survivor-driven, with input by her perpetrator and representatives from their community of support whenever possible. It is a process that provides survivors the opportunity to ask for an explanation as to why a crime occurred from the harm caused.

RJ gives survivors the space to share how a crime affected them without the restrictions placed during a victim impact statement. In RJ, there are multiple victims whenever a crime occurs: to the victim and their family, the community, and the harm-causer and their family and friends. Based upon everything she shared, Anania sounded like a restorative justice advocate.

During our interview, I asked Lorenzo and Anania what their initial response was toward him and if it transformed over time. Anania answered, “Well, in my case, I didn’t think about him like that. It wasn’t a planned incident because he didn’t have a weapon. So I wasn’t upset with him. I was upset with what happened. He ruined my life and his life for no good reason.” 

Jeremiah Jakson in 2014. (Photo: State of Pennsylvania)

When asked to elaborate further, Anania expressed how systemic issues of inequality and systemic violence were the main reasons her daughter was dead. RJ advocates and practitioners believe that restorative justice practices would not be a reactive mechanism enacted after a crime or other forms of wrongdoing have occurred in an ideal world. A genuinely restorative society eliminates the need for RJ because the systemic causes of conflict and harm are addressed before any offense is committed. Anania intimated this. 

“I think that we failed him as a system. We failed both of the kids as a system. My daughter — the system failed her, but the system failed him, too, because he was only 22. He wasn’t an adult, a complete adult that had decided, ‘I’m going to be a criminal.’ I didn’t spend my time hating him. If anything, I felt sorry for his family. He ruined both families for no good reason.” 

Lorenzo elaborated. “It was a very similar reaction. We were deeply devastated by losing her. Normally people say, ‘I lost a child.’ In this case, how are we going to categorize what happened? Did we lose her?”

He continued, “If we embrace the idea of hating him, of seeking revenge and seeking punishment, then we will be extremely upset and angry. And this is a channel that has no way out. So I knew since the beginning that it was not an avenue to pursue. [Laura} was really spiritual, and she was filled with grace. I [knew] we could never, ever think of her without thinking about him [and] that night. We would have to deal with [that] all the time that we think of her, think of him, that if we judge, if we allow hate, revenge to happen, then we will live the rest of our lives with that fear or that anger [whenever we] think of her.”

In my interviews with restorative justice practitioners, forgiveness is considered the “F” word. All said that making forgiveness a condition of the healing process places an undue burden on survivors to extend grace toward someone they may feel is undeserving. This is not to say that if a survivor chooses to forgive, this is a bad thing. It’s a matter of choice. In the restorative process, forgiveness does not release people from experiencing anger, fear, shame, and anxiety. The processes can free victims from these feelings if they experience respect, empathy, and remorse from the perpetrator. More than forgiveness, they can create the space for compassion and empathy which facilitates healing. This is distinguishable from forgiveness, which in this day and age has a distinctly religious association.

Laura was a devoutly religious Christian, and I wondered to what extent the Araujos’ faith played a role in their position toward Jeremiah. Anania spoke first. “In my case, I am not religious. I believe in people. I believe in humankind. I believe I should do good for people. One good deed brings another good deed, and that we are here to help each other. And as a teacher, I think that we failed Mr. Jakson. The system didn’t prepare him for life. He didn’t have a person to go to. Every time I think about this, I think about my students, I say [to myself], ‘If we don’t do better, a lot of my kids are going to repeat some of the mistakes that Mr. Jakson made.’ The more I think about it, the more I see that this is a system failure. Like a lot of our situations, our young people’s situation is a system failure. It’s not the person individually.”

Lorenzo echoed Anania’s religious position, adding that his daughter’s faith influenced and continues to influence how he sees Jeremiah. “As a general principle, we are not religious. We are spiritual. We have a deep respect for all creeds, for all different religions. So all that people believe, we honor and give them the space to expand their own beliefs. So it’s a respect for humanity and the universe.” 

Historically, restorative justice has been practiced in communities of color and other societies where mistrust of the authorities is rife after centuries of systemic racism and violence within all facets of the legal system. One example is the use of “circle conferences,” a practice that has indigenous roots. Alternatively referred to as peacemaking circles, their purpose is to provide a safe, non-judgmental space between the persons harmed and those who inflicted it to share their authentic feelings and address the root causes of the harm and formulate an accountability process for the responsible party.

Instead of a facilitator, these non-hierarchical gatherings are overseen by a “circle keeper” who regulates who speaks at the conference by passing a “talking piece,” which is usually an object that holds special meaning or symbolism for the group. Another is peer mediation, such as YEAH Philly, which works to reduce youth violence in West Philadelphia by interrupting the cycle of community violence through peer-led mediation and conflict resolution, community engagement, and economic opportunities.” These alternatives have not always been referred to as restorative justice, and in many locales, this modern term for ancient processes is not recognized by those in the community. To them, it is simply a way of life. 

The goal of restorative justice is to bring healing to the survivor and all affected parties to the extent possible. What recovery looks like is different for each survivor. In the case of the Araujos, they were unfamiliar with the term “restorative justice,” but their views mirrored that of RJ practitioners I know. Both shared how helping Jakson would be an ideal way to honor their daughter’s life and that in a perfect world, they would have had more of a say in the outcome of his sentencing. Neither wanted Jeremiah to be incarcerated. Lorenzo spoke first.

“Every human being [can repent]. It’s a law. There’s a lot of evolution. There are many psychiatric concepts that [say] every person, no matter what, can repent and regret. It doesn’t matter what [Jeremiah] does from now on. There is no way out, and this is a piece of pain that I share with him and for him. He is in trouble, and I would be willing to assist him in whatever we could do to make his life less painful.”

He continued, “I [wish] that society had an approach to help people like him at 22-years-old. I feel society lost two lives—one by death, the second by incarceration. I work in prisons, and I have worked for many years with people serving a life sentence. This is a miserable situation. [Prison] is a humanly degrading institution. If society had any way that helps people to be rehabilitated and at some point be safe for others and to themselves, I think that would have been a better avenue.” Anania agreed. “I would have preferred something rehabilitative that would make him a better person and help him to go on to become a productive adult that can help other people to mend what he did, instead of just going to jail and wasting his life. Society’s not getting anything out of that. Nobody’s getting anything. Nobody’s winning. He’s not winning. I’m definitely not winning. Nobody is getting anything beneficial from that.” 

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Despite their stance on Jeremiah, Anania and Lorenzo do not identify as abolitionists. “Individuals, for many reasons, might need [confinement]. But at some point, many people might be able to be restored to society. If they are so-called psychopaths, they should not be released. If we say no to all prisons, we are going to make mistakes. Any time we take extreme stands, we get wrong results.” Still, he remains skeptical of prisons due to the propensity for sentencing disparities, the dehumanization of incarcerated people, and state abuses of power.

“Other reasons to be concerned is that justice and the administration of justice is part of the state, and the state and society are corrupt institutions. Mandela spent  25 years in prison [labeled] as a delinquent criminal and politician by the South African government. Many other people in society, the government, held power to judge [him]. And so we have to be careful in how to deal with the situation. But I think that many people can be reintegrated into society.” Anania added, “There should be a better system. Our system is not working. It’s not helping anybody. It’s just making people worse instead of better.”

It has been seven years since Laura’s death and the Araujos remain committed to their goal of continuing their daughter’s legacy. Sales from Dr. Araujo’s poetry book, “A Journey of Life, Death and Rebirth with My Daughter” helps fund initiatives for The Living Laura Foundation, which aims to assist incarcerated people and students. In the future, they hope to expand the scope of the Foundation to assist young people who want to travel overseas, like Laura did when she volunteered with Habitat for Humanity.

Jeremiah Jakson in 2014 and an undated up-to-date photo from prison. (Photo: City of Philadelphia)

Jeremiah, now 29, is in a medium-security prison in Somerset, Pennsylvania, where he is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. The most recent photo of him on the inmate database, taken in 2019, shows a man with his head held high. The baby fat on his face from his arrest photo has been replaced with angular edges and his eyes stare blankly, devoid of any trace of emotion. The Araujos would like to help him, but have not attempted to contact him out of concerns that their outreach could traumatize him. To this day, they remain hopeful they can someday directly extend the grace of Laura’s spirit to the man who stole their daughter from them in a moment of panic. 

As for me, I visited the desolate location where Laura’s body was found. Seven years later the area is still strewn with litter and debris. A discarded mattress lies on the sidewalk next to the oversized lot directly across the street. It’s radius is surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. It is eerily reminiscent of the type of fencing used around prisons. Inside the closed-off perimeter, flowers rise in a tangle through the broken concrete and gravely dirt. Their colorful petals defy time and space, stretching upwards toward the sun. It is a befitting metaphor for the tragedy and hope remaining for the legacies of Jeremiah and Laura’s lives. 

Sil Lai Abrams is an NABJ award-winning writer, gender violence activist, and advocate. You can follow her on Twitter at @Sil_Lai.

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