The Final Gift | A Documentary Film

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Journey To Forgiveness Filmed

by Lillia Callum-Penso, The Greenville News, September 15, 2013

Most thought Therese Bartholomew was crazy when she set out to meet the man who killed her brother. But Bartholomew knew it was the only way to find lasting peace.

In 2010, seven years after Karl Staton shot and killed Steve Leone in a Greenville parking lot, Bartholomew sat face to face with the man who pulled the trigger. The meeting is documented in Bartholomew's film "The Final Gift," released last year.

Bartholomew didn't get a tearful apology when she met Staton at Kershaw Correctional Institution, where he was serving a 10-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter. The meeting didn't bring her brother back.

But she found peace in forgiveness, and that is the message she wants to share.

"Foregiveness, I think, is a gift to the forgiver as much to the person being forgiven," says Bartholomew, a mother of six who lives with her husband and two younger children in Charlotte. "It is something that takes away a burden and allows us to move on."

Bartholomew will share her film and her personal experience at Greenville Yoga on Sunday as part of a series of events examining forgiveness. The studio, along with Raspberry Moon Skin Therapy, has devoted the month of September to exploring how we forgive and why we should. Programs have included an art exhibit from The Forgiveness Project, an international grassroots movement focused on reconciliation and victim support, as well as free yoga classes on Sept. 11.

"We hold anger and resentment when we choose not to forgive," says Elizabeth Delaney, who co-owns Greenville Yoga with her husband, Brian. "Our hope is that hearing Therese's story will allow others to soften their hearts to some smaller hurts that may have been with them a long time."

The afterward

On Feb., 14, 2003, two days after Steve Leone died, The Greenville News reported the details.

"Leone, 33, of Charlotte, died of a single gunshot wound to the chest at about 6:30 p.m., said Kent Dill, Greenville County deputy coroner.

"Staton was taken into custody at the scene and served with the warrant Thursday morning, authorities said."

The following April, Staton pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. That was the last most people heard of the case.

When a crime is committed, the public moves on with little knowledge of what happens afterward. But for the victims or their families, the story has only just begun, says Veronica Swain Kunz, CEO of South Carolina Victims Assistance Network, an advocacy group for victims of crime.

Sometimes, meeting an offender in person can help ameliorate the "afterward," she says.

"It may be I want to meet this monster and put him in a human-size package," says Swain Kunz, who has facilitated two more victim-offender dialogues since Bartholomew and Stanton's meeting. "Or I want them to know what they did to my family. Everybody has a different reason and people come away with different things."

Swain Kunz has found that those on both sides of the table benefit.

Bartholomew was at home the night Leone died. Her husband, Douglas, answered the call around midnight.

Leone had been in Greenville on a business trip, Bartholomew says.

At Staton's sentencing hearing, Assistant 13th Circuit Solicitor Catherine Townsend described events from the night, according to an April 6, 2004, story in The Greenville News.

Townsend told the court that Leone got into an argument inside an adult club with a stripper and her boyfriend, Staton. All three were asked to leave, and the argument continued in the parking lot, where Staton pulled a gun and shot Leone in the chest, Townsend told the court.

When Bartholomew recalls that night, she is surprisingly calm. You can hear pain in her voice but there is no anger.

After her brother's death, Bartholomew was lost. She'd wake up thinking he was still alive and that everything had been a dream, only to realize the reverse was true.

"You live it over and over every day," Bartholomew says. "And then, eventually, it starts to lessen, and you think, OK, how am I going to move on, how am I going to live?"

For Bartholomew, that meant returning to school to study criminal justice. The experience introduced her to restorative justice, the idea that both victims and offenders could heal through dialogue.

Internationally, restorative justice has been gaining steam, says Vaughn CroweTipton, chaplain at Furman University. The idea has roots in the Old Testament, he says, with the concept of being responsible for your fellow man.

"Dead Man Walking," the book and the film about Sister Helen Prejean, is based on Prejean's work for restorative justice.

"It tries to help bring the relationship between the individual that's done this thing and the community or the individual, back to what the Old Testament would describe as 'Shalom,'" CroweTipton says. "The idea of all things being right and in their place. You can't have Shalom if you have oppression, you can't have Shalom if you have hurt."

In 2009, Bartholomew began the process that would lead her to Staton. She contacted organizations she thought could help, and that led her to the South Carolina Victims Advocacy Network and to Swain Kunz.

Over the next year, Bartholomew and Staton "talked" through Swain Kunz. The two exchanged letters and answered questions about themselves and their desires for a face-to-face meeting. This step is critical when it comes to victim-offender meetings, she says, because it ensures neither person is unprepared.

Finding peace

The night before Bartholomew was to meet Staton, "I was sick to my stomach," she recalls. But she awoke at 4 a.m. with a sense of clarity. She knew "that doing this is the path I'm meant to be on."

Bartholomew, her husband and the film crew arrived at Kershaw at 8 a.m. on Dec. 6, 2010. It was the strangest thing, Bartholomew says softly, but in that moment, she felt neither fear nor nervousness, only peace.

The meeting with Staton lasted 4 1/2 hours. Bartholomew asked about Staton's childhood, about the criminal justice system and she told him she forgave him.

In the film, Bartholomew and Staton sit across a table from each other with Swain Kunz in between them. Their conversation is very much a dialogue.

"Originally, I wasn't too sure about participating in this," Staton tells Bartholomew in the film. "And then I figured it was a way to return something to your family, because I know it had to hurt a lot."

Unexpectedly, Bartholomew says, Staton shared details about the night Leone died. It was the one time she broke down during the conversation.

"In the film, Veronica (Swain Kunz) asks me, what are you thinking about?" Bartholomew says of the moment. "And I said, I just miss him. It wasn't about Karl. It was never about Karl."

Bartholomew lives her life in a different place now. She thinks about her brother all the time, and she misses him every day. But Bartholomew has been able to find herself.

"At the end of the day, I can only be in charge of who I will be in this world," she says.

"I can't determine who Karl is going to be. I just know this is the person I want to be, and I am not going to let another human being change that for me."

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