Monday Morning Thoughts: Can a Restorative Process Work for the Islamic Center Vandal?

The first step of a potential restorative process was always going to be the resolution of the criminal matter against Lauren Kirk-Coehlo, who has now admitted to having committed the vandalism and desecration of the Islamic Center of Davis back in late January.

She effectively took the process out of the hands of the DA’s office, which has signaled from day one that they wanted to throw the proverbial book at Ms. Kirk-Coehlo as a means to punctuate their zero tolerance approach to hate crimes.

At the same time, two fairly prominent and effective defense attorneys did not believe they could refute the charges against her in court.

Again, that makes sense – the incident was caught on video and the additional evidence collected would make the case pretty strong.

Clearly, the defense is hoping for more leniency from the court than they got from the district attorney’s office.

Right now the defendant is facing six years in prison as a maximum sentence.  This figures to be an interesting decision for Judge Dan Maguire.  On the one hand, she has basically no real criminal charges against her, which would tend to be in her favor.  Another mitigating circumstance will be her mental health status at the time of the crime.

Clearly the defense will attempt to get her psychiatric treatment rather than extensive prison time.

But all of that is offset by the magnitude of the statements she made over Twitter and by text, threatening mass murder.

There are a lot of misconceptions about how a restorative justice process works in a criminal matter.  Contrary to the belief of many, it is not a get-out-of-jail-free card.  It is also not necessarily a matter of leniency.

When Sujatha Baliga came to speak in 2013 at MLK Day in Davis, she had just conducted a very difficult restorative justice process in the case of a murder down in Tallahassee, Florida.

A young man named Conor McBride killed his fiancé and immediately confessed to police about his actions.  Under Florida law, he faced mandatory life, but the family of the victim was not interested in his serving the rest of his life in prison.

Instead, they went through the restorative process where the judge agreed to a 20-year sentence with ten years of probation.

In an interview with the New York Times, Sujatha Baliga explained, “I’m not worried about him getting out in 20 years at all.”

She explained, “We got to look more deeply at the root of where this behavior came from than we would have had it gone a trial route — the anger issues in the family, exploring the drama in their relationship, the whole conglomeration of factors that led to that moment. There’s no explaining what happened, but there was just a much more nuanced conversation about it, which can give everyone more confidence that Conor will never do this again. And the Grosmaires got answers to questions that would have been difficult to impossible to get in a trial.”

As Lisa Rhea explained in a Vanguard op-ed a few years ago, “Because restorative justice is victims-centered—it holds offenders accountable for wrongdoing, urging them to make things right, as much as possible, with their victims—I realized that I needed to learn far more about the pain experienced by crime victims. It is one thing to read the stories of victims of violent crime, but it is another thing to meet crime victims in person and hear them tell their stories.”

Can this work in this case?

Hamza El-Nakhal, a resident of Davis since 1969, said at the January rally in Central Park that he had already forgiven the perpetrator.  He said that “if we ever get to catch this woman, we just want to talk to her.  I really have forgiven her in my heart.  After you see all this love, in fact, I’m grateful to her.

“In my heart I’m completely at peace, I already have forgiven her,” he said.  “I just want to talk to her.   I don’t know what she feels in her heart, definitely she feels something not good.”

Part of the problem that the traditional legal system would face here is that, while Ms. Kirk-Coehlo made a series of very disturbing statements, she didn’t act on them and she is not charged with them.  She is charged with vandalism with a hate crime enhancement, and an act of vandalism on a church.

Even if she got the maximum sentence of six years, she could be out in four or five years – with a system that is limited in the amount of counseling services she would get.

That has led Mayor Robb Davis to attempt, with others in the restorative justice community, to facilitate some restorative conferencing in hopes that the affected parties could meet with Ms. Kirk-Coehlo and have the opportunity to share how the incident impacted them – identify the harms done to the community, and work toward some sense of restoration of trust.

By doing that, perhaps they can help Ms. Kirk-Coehlo empathize with the pain caused to the community by her actions and, in so doing, help her to figure out ways to overcome her potential anger and hatred.

That doesn’t mean that this process will mean a lesser punishment.  As some have explained to the Vanguard, there are times when a lesser punishment is appropriate, there are times when it is not.

Will the judge and district attorney’s office go for such an approach?  That remains to be seen.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Tia Will

    It is also not necessarily a matter of leniency.”

    I don’t know what she feels in her heart, definitely she feels something not good.”

    For me, these are the two key elements that Judge Maguire will have to consider. I believe that our DAs office far too often takes a “tough on crime” approach, posturing for career /political reasons. However, this case seems to me, in a young woman with mental health issues to rest much more strongly on the “something not good” that she is feeling in her heart. Rather than consigning this young woman to prison where the mental health services are far from optimal, and the woman’s complete acceptance of and confession of her culpability, I would recommend either inpatient or closely monitored ( house confinement) outpatient mental health care and counseling. I would not feel this way if she had not fully accepted responsibility and were demonstrating denial and self justification. But acceptance of full responsibility without reserve is a positive first step which I feel should be taken into consideration.


    1. Howard P

      What is more important is that the person doesn’t ever act out his way again… I truly don’t care about how she feels, I care about how she acts…

      Occasionally, MH issues can be cured… MH issues can often be ‘controlled’/managed by counselling and/or meds.  Yet, “isolation” from society, to protect society, is sometimes the only way. [absent a spiritual ‘conversion’… longshot, but sometimes happens]

      The approach of ‘restorative justice’ is definitely worth a try… and I hope and pray (yeah, just violated a social norm) it works in this case… yet, will not be placing a substantial money bet on it.

        1. Howard P

          For the record, I say/said NOTHING about “bi-polar”… YOU, DAVID bring that into this discussion… having a close relative diagnosed as bi-polar, I think this has nothing to do with that… there are many MH issues, and some have to do with physical brain damage, drugs, other genetic factors, etc., etc., etc.  Hell, she might have played too much football without a helmet… I have no clue.

          Please don’t attribute a term (albeit indirectly) to what I posted.   Thanks…

        2. David Greenwald

          I responding to what you said, not attributing it to you.  You said mental health issues can be cured or at least treated, but from what I understand what she has is bipolar and I’m sure the nexus between her actions and being bipolar, that was my only point.

    2. John Hobbs

      ” fully accepted responsibility”

      I sense more pride of accomplishment. I do not think this person should be in an outpatient program.

      I hope that a treatment program is made available for her in jail, but religious and racial hatred are not recognized mental illnesses. I also wonder how “restorative justice” could be applied without a substantial risk to any mosque members that might want to get involved.


      1. Tia Will

        “I sense more pride of accomplishment”

        On what evidence are you basing that opinion ?

        The choices are not solely prison vs outpatient. We do have inpatient psychiatric care which might be a more appropriate place for a person such as this with a diagnosed mental illness possibly contributing. I do not believe that jail or prison is the appropriate location for those with mental illness and that our current practice of using prisons as warehouses for the mentally is ineffective, counterproductive and expensive.

        1. Howard P

          Must have missed the memo… have seen no ‘diagnosis’ of anything other than a crime and an admission of guilt…

          It was you, Tia, who brought MH into play in the responses to this article… can’t find any MH discussion, per se, in the article.

          John and I responded to the insertion of MH issues, and somehow David translated that to me bringing up “bipolar”, which I did not do.

          I still believe the RJ approach is worth a try… but there needs to be a ‘Plan B’, in my opinion…

        2. John Hobbs

          “On what evidence are you basing that opinion ?”

          This is the same expression I wear after a successful musical performance.

          An admission of guilt is not one of remorse. So far as I have been able to ascertain, she has expressed no remorse at all. Her expressed desires to kill people seem quite sincere.

          As with Danny Marsh, my native response is to protect the public from her awful ambitions, first.

        3. David Greenwald

          “I still believe the RJ approach is worth a try… but there needs to be a ‘Plan B’, in my opinion…”

          I think that misunderstands how this stuff works.  First of all, sometimes the process will impact sentencing, but it doesn’t have to.  Second, even if it does, the process needs to be completed successfully with an agreement.  Without one there is no restorative process.  I’m not sure how you would characterize something as A, B, C.  I think it’s more akin to having a dispute go to mediation and then if that doesn’t work it would return to court or it could be like needing to complete substance abuse treatment as a condition of probation – if it fails, it goes back to court for reconsideration.  Bottom line, plan B is built into the structure of the process.  If that makes sense.

  2. Howard P

    David… your 1:38 post…

    True… I do not understand, but am very willing to try… will follow how it plays out, with interest… and with an open mind, with a dash of skepticism..


  3. Tia Will


    It was you, Tia, who brought MH into play in the responses to this article”
    It was discussed in a previous article on this case which I had read here on the 
    Vanguard. I had heard of the mental health issues coming up in communications between the perpetrator and her mother. I do not recall reading  nor hearing anything about the specific diagnosis which I doubt would be directly related to her actions unless she was having an out of control manic episode. I have heard manic episodes being associated with other destructive behaviors such as tearing out walls of houses or shop lifting if money not available, but which I have never heard associated with religious or racial intolerance.

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