James Diamond explores options for restorative justice after mass shootings
Published in 2022 Connecticut Super Lawyers magazine on October 3, 2022
After 25 years, James Diamond felt burnt out. A prosecutor turned criminal defense attorney, he says he was “frustrated at the lack of progress to get anything done or reformed in an adversarial system that has only winners and losers—with punishment the ultimate goal.”
So in 2012, he shut down his office in Norwalk, moved to Arizona and enrolled in the James E. Rogers College of Law’s Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy doctoral program. “Tribal law and philosophy always fascinated me,” Diamond says.
That December, he was at JFK Airport, returning from Arizona, when news broke about Sandy Hook Elementary School. “I’m watching this and am just heartbroken,” Diamond says. “Everyone was. But that was my district. That’s where I practiced.”
In the days that followed, he watched as the media consistently mentioned 26 victims. “But there were 27,” Diamond says. “The killer’s mother died, and she was viewed as an accomplice instead. You see similar themes in this horrific Uvalde shooting, where the grandmother is not being counted among the injured. I became curious if a shooting had ever occurred on an Indian reservation, and what the legal, social and community response was.”
It was different. In March 2005, on Minnesota’s Red Lake Reservation, a 16-year-old killed 10 people and injured seven, and the first victim was the killer’s grandfather. And he was counted as a victim.
“The family of the killer wasn’t demonized,” Diamond says. “This kid committed an atrocity. But he was someone’s son, brother, cousin, grandchild, and his family was made up of human beings in mourning. The tribe did not turn its back on this family, which paved the way for true healing and empathy.”
Another big difference was how conversations were facilitated between victims and the killer’s family. “I began to approach this historical indigenous tradition of talking things out as an avenue for restorative justice to try to figure out how we went from that to our literal vertical system, where the judge sits on high above you, and there’s a wall of separation between offenders and victims,” he says.
His studies led to 2019’s After the Bloodbath: Is Healing Possible in the Wake of Rampage Shootings? It examines indigenous responses to crime and offers ideas on how the current U.S. system might adopt Native ideologies in the aftermath of mass shootings.
The foreword was written by Alissa and Robbie Parker, whose 6-year-old daughter Emilie was killed at Sandy Hook.
Reporters were just walking into the homes of the Newtown families, Diamond says, and he got involved. “I became close to the Parkers, who requested to do what indigenous communities do: talk to the offender’s family.” Alissa Parker later wrote in her own book that the conversation was an important part of her healing.
“The ripple effect of mass shootings in a community … it’s like a stone thrown in a pond, except the pond never ends,” Diamond says. “The Parkers came to this conversation as a necessary part to their story, and it was critical to their perspective.”
In his book, Diamond suggests the criminal system adopt face-to-face conversations between offenders (or their families) and victims and other community members. “I’m not talking about replacing the criminal justice system with restorative justice,” Diamond says. “But I do recommend this conversation, after a plea or a conviction but before sentencing, if the parties agree. We also need to reexamine, under the context of the law, who is a victim.”
Diamond now splits time between his Connecticut law office, where he largely does consulting work for tribes all over the country; and Arizona, where he’s been appointed interim director of the James E. Rogers College of Law indigenous law program.
“My criminal law buddies probably wonder why they never see me in court anymore,” he says. “But I love the unique space I’m now in—where I can combine the first half of my career with my second.”