Six years ago today was my wedding day. Everything in my life was coming together: I was 30 years old, I had a job I loved as a high school guidance counsellor, and I was marrying a man who was my perfect match. We had already shared 2½ years together, and a new chapter was about to unfold. People sometimes wonder how I didn't see any signs of the brutality that was to come, but the fact is that there were no signs. I couldn't have known.
A month after my wedding day, I was attending a conference in Toronto, away from my husband and our Peterborough, Ont., home, when a police officer came to my hotel room door. He told me my husband had been arrested the night before, charged with the sexual assault and kidnapping of two women. My shock was instantaneous and overwhelming. There must be some mistake! Then the officer told me that Jason had turned himself in to the police, so I knew there had been no mistake. I was devastated.
I met Jason Staples early in 2003 while volunteering at a restaurant for low-income patrons, where he was the assistant co-ordinator and chef. He was loved and respected by staff, clients and volunteers alike. We took an immediate interest in one another, and he soon asked me out. On our first date he told me he was on parole with a life sentence.
In 1988, a few months after his 18th birthday, Jason had killed his roommate.
He had just dropped out of high school, and she was 20 years older than him. The two had developed a sexual relationship. One night, after a heated argument, Jason lost control and killed her. Corrections experts later chalked his crime up to “adolescent rage.” He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and served 10 years in prison. He was released in 1998 in Kingston, where for five years he had lived as a model citizen.
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. This was a handsome, intelligent, gentle man in front of me, not what I imagined when I thought of a “murderer.” His remorse was palpable and I found my heart going out to him just as it did for his victim. I worked with teenagers at the time, many of them troubled. I had seen firsthand how easy it was for a young person to make terrible mistakes. Had Jason not made this disclosure, I would have found myself enjoying a full-fledged crush, looking forward to the next date. But there was nothing carefree in learning about Jason's past. I believed in second chances, but I didn't yet know how much of Jason's second chance I wanted to be, or could be. Before I decided what to do, I needed information.
Jason encouraged me to meet privately with his parole officer and psychologist, and they quelled any concern that Jason would reoffend. They said he was their “best guy.” They believed he was rehabilitated. Official reports and psychiatric assessments echoed their confidence. The focus of the parole board and the Correctional Service of Canada was on Jason's future; he had everything going for him.
It took time for me to accept the unchangeable reality of Jason's past. Eventually, and with the full support of family and close friends, we developed a wonderful, romantic relationship characterized by love, understanding and common goals. We began living together, and moved to Peterborough in 2004 so that Jason could attend art school. We bought a small house and decided to marry.
But everything changed on that November morning, with the police at my hotel-room door. I was faced with the devastating proof that something was still very wrong with Jason. The sexual nature of the new offences made my stomach churn. The officer disclosed only scant details, telling me Jason had sexually assaulted two women in the store where he worked, loaded them into a rented van and then kept them in our basement for hours before finally calling 9-1-1 to tell the police to come and rescue them. I pictured their ordeal – a woman's worst nightmare. Questions about the victims flooded my mind: Who were they? Were they going to be okay? Thinking of Jason, my mind screamed, What happened? How could you do this? My heart was breaking.
At the Peterborough police station, I was questioned by an officer on every detail of my life with Jason. Over the almost two-hour interrogation, I got the distinct impression that the officer was looking for signs that I was weak, delusional, manipulated or abused – and maybe even an accomplice. It was an attitude I would be forced to confront often in the weeks following Jason's crimes. We all want to feel safe and in control of our lives, but the reality is there are no guarantees. In the aftermath of his crimes, I lost many friends and colleagues. Some accused me of putting them in danger and believed I should have seen Jason's violence coming.
It's a hard thing for human beings to accept – that we are not so different from each other, that the bad things that happen to one could happen to another. I came to realize that, for some people, feeling safe meant distancing themselves by imagining character flaws in me that they wouldn't attribute to themselves. “Shannon is very naive. I'm not naive, so I would have known Jason was dangerous.” The fact that many of these people knew of his past and had chosen to trust him was forgotten. Were it not for compassionate support from my family and other friends, I wouldn't have survived.
I was heartsick to read the headlines about the wife of Colonel Russell Williams after the shocking sex crimes that led to his arrest in 2010: “How could she not have known?” I was angered to hear the same question asked of her that was – and still is – asked of me. The truth is I didn't know that Jason was dangerous. It was like the sudden eruption of terminal cancer after all the experts had said it was gone for good. Only this was a cancer that hurt others. Given the chance, I would have done anything to stop Jason.
After his arrest, I quickly realized that while jails prevent criminals from committing further crimes (at least for as long as they are incarcerated), they also prevent those same criminals from facing the people they have hurt. Jason was carted away to solitary confinement while I was left to answer for him in the aftermath, even though I was as appalled, shocked and mystified as everyone else.
Families of offenders face an uphill battle to overcome the stigma of guilt-by-association and to regain control of their lives after their loved one has committed a crime. At times I felt so vulnerable and desperate that I wished I could trade places with Jason – that I could have 24 hours a day in solitude, a place to think and three meals a day delivered to me – instead of having to mop up the disaster he had left behind.
In 2008, Jason pleaded guilty and instructed his lawyer not to contest the Crown's application for dangerous offender status. He is currently serving an indeterminate sentence in a medium-security federal prison.
Today, people continue to ask me, “Why did Jason do it?” I would love to know the answer, but in the absence of any psychiatric evaluation or treatment inside prison, the time Jason is serving is just that: time. It's time that he could spend as a study subject so doctors could learn about how to treat, cure and prevent sexual deviance disorders, or working to pay restitution to his victims.
What helped me was the time I spent visiting Jason. I was able to ask him questions and get answers. Through the glass of the visiting room, I confronted him with the effects his crimes were having on me, my family and my community. I could only imagine the effect his crimes had had on the assault victims, and I confronted him about this, too. I couldn't help them directly because I didn't know them, but I hoped to achieve something by holding their offender to account.
Visit after visit, what I saw before me was a man who was ashamed and filled with remorse. I had the opportunity to see that there was still a human being behind Jason's monstrous acts. His willingness to take responsibility released me from holding onto anger and resentment – a life sentence that I didn't deserve – and helped me open the door to forgiveness and a positive future.
Conventional justice sends the message to victims and society that we should all be satisfied and healed by retribution. Our government tells us that longer sentences and bigger prisons will make us safer. By contrast, my experience tells me that treatment, education and accountability programs for offenders do more good at less cost. Had Jason had access to these, perhaps he never would have reoffended.
I believe that the ripple effect of crime can be stopped by allocating resources to support victims and offenders' families. And by uncovering and treating crime's root causes, such as abuse and mental illness, we will come much closer to the safe and just society we universally desire.
Shannon Moroney lives in Toronto, where she is happily remarried. She is an advocate of restorative justice, a volunteer with Leave Out ViolencE and a contributor to the international Forgiveness Project. Her new memoir, Through the Glass , is published by Doubleday Canada.