By TIMOTHY WILLIAMS JAN. 3, 2017
Shelley Freeman held tissues while talking about her son Cameron, who was killed by a drunk driver in 2010. Credit Andrew Dickinson for The New York Times
TOPEKA, Kan. — Early one morning along a stretch of nearly deserted Kansas highway, Cameron Freeman, a college student from Nebraska, and Zachary Harrison, an Air Force loadmaster, were involved in a violent traffic collision that left one of the promising young men dead and the other in prison.
Suffering from pain, confusion and bouts of overpowering anger, the survivor and the victim’s family eventually agreed to meet through a Kansas restorative justice program, which brings together victims and those who have upended their lives. Similar programs are expanding throughout the country. Here’s a look at Cameron, Zachary and Cameron’s parents as they become involved in the program.
(In this related article, read about a meeting between a mother and the man who fatally shot her son outside a Kansas bar.)
Cameron Freeman, 21, was a free spirit, “brilliant and crazy.”
At 6-foot-7, Cameron was still adjusting to his body. He loved electronic music, and often lost himself while dancing — joyously, if inelegantly — at concerts. He played the cello and dreamed of becoming a science writer. At age 7, he told his parents he had discovered a cure for AIDS by reformulating RNA molecules.
“He was like a wild colt on the open prairie,” his father, Paul Freeman, said.
On Nov. 23, 2010, two days before Thanksgiving, Cameron and three friends packed into a Mazda 626 and drove from Lincoln, Neb., to Lawrence, Kan., to see a concert by one of Cameron’s favorite electronica performers, Bonobo.
At the end of what Cameron said was one of the best nights of his life, the group piled back into the car, buckled up, and with a designated driver behind the wheel, eased out onto U.S. 24 for the three-and-a-half-hour trip back to Lincoln.
Cameron did his best to stretch his long legs in the back seat. It was about 3:30 a.m.
Zachary Harrison, 22, wanted nothing more than to escape Hutchinson, Kan.
So he joined the Air Force to see the world — and he did, including a stint in Afghanistan working as a loadmaster for C-130 cargo planes. “I wanted to get out of Hutch,” he said, “It didn’t scare me to go fight.”
During the afternoon of Nov. 23, 2010, Zachary, who was on leave, split an 18-pack of beer with his twin brother and downed a couple of shots of Maker’s Mark bourbon.
He also played a few rounds of beer pong with friends before they headed to a sorority party at a bar in Lawrence. The group eventually split up, and Zachary ended up at another bar.
For reasons still unclear, he stole a pickup truck and started driving west along Highway 24. He does not remember the time, but it must have been about 3:15 a.m.
He stepped on the accelerator and was soon speeding along at 111 miles an hour. Moments later, he hit the Mazda from behind.
“The truck was in the back of the car,” Cameron’s mother, Shelley Freeman, said. “There were gouges in the asphalt. The whole back of the car had been blown away.”
Cameron was killed. His friend Fernando Pages, 21, suffered a traumatic brain injury.
“It looked like a war scene,” Paul Freeman said.
Zachary couldn’t remember anything.
“I remember getting out of the truck and I turned around,” he said, “and what I saw next is blue lights and I remember being on my stomach, on my chest, on the ground sprawled out.”
Once he sobered up, a police detective told him that he had stolen a Toyota Tundra pickup from the University of Kansas campus and had plowed through a barrier gate in a parking lot there.
When the Tundra slammed into the back of the Mazda, Zachary had been driving so fast that little about the car was recognizable. His blood alcohol level was 0.16, about twice the legal limit.
”I didn’t believe him at first,” Zachary said. “I was saying: ‘No, you got the wrong guy. There’s just no way.’”
He was convicted and sentenced to more than six years in prison.
Cameron’s mother thought the sentence was too lenient.
Still, she insisted on meeting Zachary to try to understand what had possessed him to go so fast that night on Highway 24.
“I thought, ‘This is a person we don’t even know. How can we judge him?’” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘If he was my son, I hope someone gives him a hug.’”
More crime victims and their families are expressing an interest in meeting the people who have caused them harm.
In Kansas, the project is small, run by a single coordinator — Holly Chavez — who works for the Department of Corrections. The goal is for offenders to try to come to terms with what they have done — and for victims and their families to ask the question that in many cases has haunted them for years: “Why?” The process is unpredictable, tense and surprising for all involved. “A hot mess,” Ms. Chavez said.
The process can involve nearly a year of preliminary discussions, and requires each side’s consent. Inmates receive no reduction in sentence or credit at their parole hearings for participating. Ms. Chavez said she had learned not only to listen carefully, but to read body language when deciding if a meeting should take place.
What follows is a discussion of the steps that led to one such meeting, and what happened when Cameron’s parents, Paul and Shelley Freeman, finally sat down with Zachary Harrison, who killed their son.
The excerpts, which came from separate interviews that took place after the meeting, capture the reactions of those involved.
At first, Zachary was skeptical about meeting.
Zachary, who killed Cameron
My first response was, “Why did they want to meet with me?” If that was my kid, there’s no way I could show my face in the courtroom because I’m probably going to kill him — kill the person who killed my kid. To be able to sit in a room and meet with someone who stole my son from me. ...
Paul Freeman, victim’s father
He could be anybody’s son. I wanted to meet him. See what kind of person he was. And I wanted him to know who Cameron was. I wanted the world to know what they lost that day. I wanted Zachary Harrison to know.
I was thinking, “What are they after?” It was more confusing than anything.
Shelley Freeman, victim’s mother
Cameron wasn’t perfect. He was a human being. And so was Zachary Harrison. I wanted some assurance this wasn’t going to happen to another family.
Holly said they wanted to get to know me. I thought that was weird.
Holly Chavez, program coordinator
Everyone has a thing they want to know. They said they just wanted him to know who Cameron was.
I remember telling my mom, “I just don’t see this happening.”
“It took awhile to break his wall down,” Ms. Chavez said.
After months of talking with Ms. Chavez, Zachary said it was her persistence and refusal to cast blame that ultimately persuaded him.
She wasn’t there to point fingers or judge. She did actually care about me and my side of the story.
When he said yes, it was, “Oh my God, hallelujah.”
They had a lot of questions. They wanted to know what my plans were when I got out. They wanted to know about family support. Where would I stay? They wanted to know about how my rehabilitation was going and where I was headed when I got out. They had a few questions about that night, but it was more about where I was going.
About halfway through, he was remorseful, human. The morning of the accident, he had been asked if he was remorseful, and he was not. Zachary felt he didn’t belong in prison because he didn’t remember anything.
The critical moment: Bringing everyone together.
It was like a wedding. You question yourself: “Do I really want to do this?” Expectations, worries ...
Two weeks before, I got physically sick. “Oh my, what am I doing?”
I was ready, “Let’s just do this.” I didn’t care how I felt. I was tired of the meetings going over the same things.
Up to the very end, he was saying, “Why do they want to do it?”
I knew that day was going to suck. That day, I got nervous. I didn’t know what to expect.
I hadn’t prepared words. My first word was “Namaste” (a reference to the good she saw in Zachary).
They started talking about Cameron and showing pictures and stuff. What kind of person he was. That’s what I was curious about, what kind of person he was.
We asked about his life.
We had two different upbringings. You knew he was a fun guy. He had to be very smart, very outgoing, very fun, probably pretty witty.
They asked me a few details about that night — what I could remember — and I really didn’t have anything for them ... they asked about the family, my plans. ...
He put his hands on the table and said, “I will never drink again.”
We met for four or five hours. It was emotional. It was intense in there.
We talked for six and a half hours. They had to kick us out.
At the meeting, Zachary apologized.
He said for the first time in his life that he had to deal with his emotions and not lean on alcohol or rage. I thought: “Good. That’s a start in the right direction.” That was the reassurance I needed. Not just the apology.
At the end, she actually asked me if she could give me a hug. That’s kind of what changed my life. If a mom can do that with what I’ve done — and give me a hug. That’s huge.
I don’t know that I’ll ever get to the point of actually forgiving myself.
He did apologize. He said he wanted to go to Cameron’s grave and talk to him. All my goals were accomplished.
Zachary and the Freemans completed their dialogue in November 2015. Zachary was released from prison in August. He has a job and in January plans to marry a woman he has known since junior high. He acknowledges being an alcoholic, and said he realized he had changed when he went to his 10-year high school reunion.
“Guys were getting drunk,” Zachary said. “I was thinking the whole time, ‘I wonder who’s driving them home?’ The guy you see stacking the beer cans up like I used to do — you’re proud of how much you just drank in an hour. You don’t know what’s important in life. If you think that’s cool, then you’ve got issues.”
He said he planned to meet the Freemans again, probably this coming spring.
The Freemans say he is welcome.
(In a related article, the solitude of prison forced Timothy Shahid to try to figure out who he was. Part of that process was meeting the mother of the man he had fatally shot outside a Kansas bar.)