It was about 3 a.m. on May 7, 1987, and Jesse Coddington had been drinking. He arrived back to his home in Ferndale, Michigan, and was fixing himself some beef stew when Julie Mendoza, the woman he was seeing, came into the kitchen. She told him she was pregnant with his child, and they started to fight.
Coddington's sister-in-law, Jean Coddington, heard the commotion and came running. Jean jumped on Jesse's back and started scratching him. He swung around and knocked her to the floor. Then he grabbed a gun and shot both women in the head. Both died, and Coddington was sentenced to life without parole.
Since 2015, Coddington has been trading letters with Patti Oates-Ul-rich, a churchgoing woman from East Lansing, Michigan, not too far from where he's locked up. Once she would have agreed, like most of us, that there should be no mercy for a brutal double murder. But over the years, something's changed. "I feel like I've seen firsthand what redemption looks like," she says now. "This is it."
Oates-Ulrichs change of heart was brought about by a program in Michigan called the Good Neighbor Project. The project is run by the American Friends Service Committee, founded by the Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as the Quakers, a Christian denomination that believes that there is a piece of "God in every person." The project connects people serving life sentences with community members on the outside, setting it apart from typical restorative justice programs that match convicts with the victims of their crimes. Instead, it seeks to transform how locals like Oates-Ulrich see their hidden neighbors, people like Jesse Coddington.
The project was designed by a former convict, Ronald Simpson-Bey, who spent twenty-seven years in a Michigan prison for trying to kill a police officer. He became a paralegal while in prison, and was able to get his conviction overturned because of prosecutorial misconduct. He also studied restorative justice, a process in which victims and offenders work together on healing solutions in the aftermath of crimes.
On Father's Day in 2001, Simpson-Bey's twenty-one-year-old son was murdered by a fourteen-year-old. Knowing enough to fight his revenge impulse, he wrote letters to the judge requesting that he try the murderer as a juvenile. His son's killer was released at age twenty-one.
Not long after Simpson-Bey was himself released from prison in 2012, he came across an opportunity to create a restorative...