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The Storytellers

'We forgave our son's killers'

It’s the worst nightmare of every parent, losing a child in an act of violence. But Ray and Violet Donovan have managed to forgive the men who murdered their son, and even meet them face to face.

It was a warm Friday night in May 2001 when Christopher and Philip Donovan set out for a friend's house in Surrey, southern England, singing a song by rock group Oasis along the way. As the brothers walked they came upon a gang of intoxicated, young men, who parted to let them through. Then one of the youths punched Philip in the face, knocking him down. When Chris tried to help, he was set upon and kicked repeatedly about the head and then left on the road, in the path of oncoming traffic.

A short time later, the boys' parents, Ray and Violet, were woken by the sudden knock of police officers at the door, urging them to come to the hospital. Chris was severely injured.

"We waited in this room and eventually they came and they said just about every bone in his body was broken, and if he survived he would be brain damaged. We couldn't believe it. It just felt so surreal to all of us," Violet, known as Vi, says. "Then they came back in the early hours of that morning, and they said he'd died."

Need for answers

It was four months before the Donovans could bury their son, after forensic tests were carried out. Three of the gang members, aged 15, 16 and 19, were arrested and eventually jailed for Chris' murder.

But the Donovans' ordeal was far from over.

"Coming out of court we knew that we'd got justice when those young men were arrested for murder and tried and sent to prison," Vi says. "But we never got the truth, we never got our answers. We didn't feel that we'd been acknowledged as the family of Chris, as victims of crime."

The couple decided to dedicate their lives to their son's memory: They set up the Chris Donovan Trust and began giving talks in prisons and schools to raise awareness about the effects of violent crime on victims and their families.

Then, in 2010, they were approached by a charity and asked if they would like to meet their son's killers, who had been released from prison. Incredibly, they agreed.

"We're sitting in a room and in walked the first boy. He's 25 years old. He was 15 when he murdered Chris. I stood up and put up my arms out and he came over to me and whispered 'thank you'," Ray Donovan says.

The killer had been part of a victim awareness course in prison, which led him to acknowledge his cowardice in the killing, and apologize.

"We waited all that time for the truth. If we'd locked [him] up and thrown away the key we wouldn't have got that," Ray said.

In time, they met the second killer, and the third - forgiving them all, face to face.

Portrait of Christopher (Chris) Donovan (Photo: Ray Donovan)

Christopher Donovan was 18 when he was murdered, now his parents are campaigning for restorative justice

Against all odds, the Donovans went on to develop friendships with the men, exchanging phone numbers and writing to each other regularly.

Ray reads out a text message he received from one of them, shortly after one of their meetings:

"Ray and Vi, I thought I would send you a text to say thanks once again for being so forgiving and letting me have another chance at life. I hope that yesterday will allow you to move on that little bit more. I think the work you're doing in the name of Chris is amazing."

Their experience has left Ray and Vi convinced of the power of restorative justice.

"The point was we met them because we're victims of crime who need answers. That was the main point of it," Vi says. "And the other point was we didn't want them to come out and reoffend. We needed them to understand what they had done."

She says that when criminals meet the victims of their crimes, they can see the effects of their actions. Until then, she adds, families of victims are easily dismissed as just names on pieces of paper in a courtroom.

Voice for victims

The Donovans have become active campaigners for the use of restorative justice, which is now commonplace within the British penal system.

The Chris Donovan Trust has worked in schools and prisons, as well as training probation officers, police officers and youth offending groups across Britain.

"All the major groups in this country are training in restorative justice. For the first time, victims of crime, me and Ray and the Chris Donovan Trust, have been able to make them understand victims," Vi says.

Not a day goes by that Ray and Vi don't think of their son, who would have been 19 the week after he was murdered. Though they will never be able to get him back, through coming into contact with their son's killers they feel, as far as possible, that justice has been restored.

"I think Christopher would marvel and I marvel at sitting in a room with a gang member and telling him this story and him coming out of that gang and going back into education, and we've seen that time and time again. That's remarkable," Vi says.

"And I think Christopher would find that quite remarkable, the thought that his name would be used in that way."

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