Elizabeth Leenheer told the Restorative Justice Conference how tragedy softened her heart.
Elizabeth Leenheer used to think that rather than using rats for testing, scientists should use criminals instead.
Today Leenheer is a changed woman, full of compassion, love and forgiveness. Her life was transformed by murder – a violent murder her brother Matthew committed just over three years ago.
Her brother's humanity, remorse and vulnerability made Leenheer see prisoners in a different light. "My brother is not a monster," she now says. "He is a person; a young man who was lost. He did not feel love from others and made a horrible choice and committed a heinous crime."
Leenheer shared her painful journey at a workshop called How Murder Saved my Life at the annual Alberta Restorative Justice Conference at Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton Nov. 18-19. The Edmonton Archdiocese is one of the conference's sponsors.
"My baby brother violently killed a young woman and his actions resulted in many victims. My own family and myself are among these victims," Leenheer said. "This murder, however, does not define this young woman and does not define my brother. These are two people whose lives mean so much more than that."
Leenheer, who sobbed profusely throughout her presentation, said prior to the murder, she was an angry woman with little concern for others. "At times I was cruel and cold to my brother. I had very little sympathy for others, especially for people who commit crimes."
Her youngest sister reminded Leenheer of the time she said, "instead of testing on animals, we should test on people in prison." "If it had not been my brother who murdered this young woman, I would have said, 'Kill him, he deserves to die' and I would have meant it."
When did Leenheer's attitude toward prisoners change? Not immediately after hearing of the murder. "I was outraged and I was horrified. My heart literally stopped. I hated my brother."
During a family meeting, Leenheer's father said Matthew was sorry for what he had done, to which Leenheer nastily retorted, "He is not sorry; he is just sorry he got caught."
The sentencing judge called Matthew's crime "cruel beyond belief" and "the stuff of horror stories."
"I was full of hatred and was planning to let him know that," Leenheer said. But when Matthew called from the Remand Centre and Leenheer heard his "shaky and hopeless voice," she couldn't but feel compassion for her brother. At that point, Leenheer's heart started to beat again.
The family made a conscious decision to let Matthew know "we were there for him."
"My brother said more than once he did not know we loved him until after he committed murder," Leenheer said.
During his first evening at the Remand Centre, Matthew felt so alone, he was ready to take his own life. He stopped when he saw his family.
"United in purpose, we stood outside of the Remand Centre and we waved for hours and he waved back. And when it got dark we flashed our headlights and he flashed his light.
"It was that expression of love and support that kept him alive so we kept doing it night after night (for 49 days) until they moved him and he couldn't see us."
As the case progressed and details of the murder came out, Leenheer's anger was replaced by an overwhelming sadness. She visited her brother often, called him on the phone and wrote him letters. "I got to know him a little bit better and I could actually feel and see the part that I had played in his life and this increased my sadness."
But the outpouring of support from friends and members of the community made the sadness go away. "In its place there was hope and determination. I wanted to live my life in a way that would honour this murdered young woman and my brother."
During this time she learned a lot about people in prison and realized many of the "guys" at the Remand have no one to love and support them.
"This has always stuck with me because I know it's love and support that has kept my brother alive and what is helping him change."
When she first saw Matthew after the murder, his eyes were black. "They were dark and they were lifeless. I was terrified." As time has passed, she has seen her brother change. "His eyes are now bright and there is light in there."
Leenheer said she didn't find restorative justice. "I believe it found me when I so desperately needed to believe in something."
Matthew pleaded guilty and did not have a trial. He was convicted of second-degree murder and is serving his sentence in a medium security prison.
During his sentencing hearing, eight victim impact statements were given by family and friends of the victim. "They spoke about this young woman and the profound effect she'd had on their lives."
Leenheer believes the impact statements had an affect on Matthew. "When these people spoke, he looked at them in the eye and let them say what they needed to say. And before he was sentenced he stood up in a room full of people who hated him and showed enough courage to offer an apology."
A changed woman, Leenheer began volunteering and ended up joining the correctional services program at Grant MacEwan University. The program changed her life.
"It was here that I was finally able to put a name to restorative justice," she said. "I learned that forgiveness and healing could be possible and I learned that they were happening."
So how did murder save Leenheer's life?
"I have a passion for life that I never had before," she said. "Through a tragedy, I grew soft and kindhearted. I have found forgiveness for my brother and for myself. I have a purpose for my life. I also have one of the strongest bonds with my brother."
Leenheer now wants to educate people about prisoners. "I want to show people that change is possible and that they can contribute to this change. The way (prisoners) are treated, accepted or rejected will determine whether or not they can make any changes."
Quoting Dr. Pierre Allard from last year's conference, Leenheer said offenders don't fall from the moon but come from our families and communities.
"The next time you hear of a horrific crime on the news I offer that you put yourself there," she told her audience. "What if it was you? What if it was your son, your daughter, your brother or your sister who committed that crime? Think what you would do."