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The Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management (PCJ) at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) hosted a screening and discussion of the film Heaven’s Rain, based on the true story of a HKS alumnus’ efforts to overcome a vicious crime that took his parents’ lives.
The event, co-sponsored by the student-led Criminal Justice Professional Interest Council at HKS in April, was an intense and often moving examination of how one victim decided to rebuild his life and pursue justice.
Brooks Douglass (MC/MPA 2002), who wrote and produced Heaven’s Rain about his tragic experience, was on hand to discuss the film and answer audience questions. Douglass also had a lead acting role in the film, portraying his father.
On October 15, 1979, when Douglass was 16, two men invaded the Oklahoma home he lived in with his parents Marilyn and Richard and his 12-year-old sister Leslie. The men raped Leslie and shot all four members of the family, killing Marilyn and Richard and leaving the siblings to die. But Brooks and Leslie survived, and the intruders were apprehended.
At 27, Douglass joined the Oklahoma State Senate, where he became a crusader for victims’ rights. As Heaven’s Rain depicts poignantly, Douglass won a modicum of closure when he witnessed the lethal injection of one of the murderers and, in a deeply emotional conversation with the other, found himself able to forgive.
The decision to make a film about these experiences didn’t come easily to Douglass.
“I never expected to do it,” he said, adding that he worried “it’s too painful, it’s too personal.”
But that was ultimately a large reason Douglass decided to go ahead with Heaven’s Rain. “I really wanted people to get the message of the power of forgiveness,” he said. “It’s also a tribute to my parents.”
The screening of the film set the stage for a wide-ranging conversation between Douglass and the audience. Sheriff of Middlesex County Peter Koutoujian, who was Douglass’s classmate at HKS, facilitated the discussion with searching questions. For example, Koutoujian asked Douglass about the experience of playing his father during the film’s brutal murder scene.
“When I think of my dad, I think of throwing the football around, or riding around in the car, or things like that…. I don’t think of him dying on the floor next to me,” Douglass said. “That crime scene was absolutely one of the top two or three hardest things I’ve ever done in my life.”
Douglass also fielded an audience question that asked him to consider what was thinking when he sought a conversation with one of the murderers.
“Forgiving him was nowhere in my mind,” Douglass said, but during the dialogue the killer apologized, and Douglass “could see sincerity in his face.” The act of forgiving his tormenter created a sense of relief, “like I had a clamp taken off my chest.”
The event’s discussion ranged to policy too. Douglass noted that there are almost two dozen enumerated rights in the Constitution protecting the accused, but none looking after for victims. As a legislator, Douglass championed laws that provided for, among other things, victim impact statements and a victims compensation fund to defray expenses associated with being a victim (e.g., the cost of traveling to trials).
“It gives you a little bit more of a feeling of control,” Douglass said of victims’ rights, adding that the drawn-out process of convicting and punishing a criminal “does wind up re-victimizing” those who have already suffered. He pointed out that he was required to testify a total of nine times in connection with the prosecution of his parents’ murderers.
The DVD version of Heaven’s Rain is expected to be released Nov. 13.