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Documentary Features Mother Who Reconciled With Son's Murderer

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Filmmaker Julie Mallozzi (right) sits next to Janet Connors (left), who holds a photo of her son, Joel, who was murdered when he was 19 years old.
Paris Alston/WGBH News
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171013_f_connors_howard_for_web.mp3

Barbara Howard: Janet Connors’ story starts with a knock at the door. She is told that her 19-year-old son, Joel James Turner, has been killed — stabbed to death. What to do with that kind of pain is the subject of a film, “Circle Up." This weekend it's part of the GlobeDocs Film Festival.

Sitting through the trial, Connors, of Dorchester, quietly sobbed through the evidence. The film shows blood-splattered walls her son's white sweatshirt stained brown. Three of the four accused of killing Joel ended up in prison, but Connors remembers when the fourth suspect — the one she says she believes killed her boy — was set free.

[Sound from the film “Circle Up”]

Janet Connors: I can still hear myself screaming in the hallways of the courthouse. You're not supposed to cry now. You're not supposed to scream. The court has decided.

Howard: The grief — it was eating her up. She felt compelled to talk with the young men convicted of killing her son. She petitioned the Department of Correction for a meeting with them. The department passed her request along, and one of the men, called A.J. in the film, agreed. An official says that this marks the first time a victim offender dialogue between a convict and the family of a murder victim was held through the State Department of Correction. But it would not be the last. It sent Connors on a path to a deal not only with her own grief, but to help others deal with theirs — people like A.J. He recalls being 21 when he arrived at the prison, facing a 10-year sentence.

[Sound from the film “Circle Up”]

A.J.: I remember, I didn't sleep that whole night, my first night in Concord. The problem was I never thought I'd go home again, because I thought I'd end up killing someone in jail.

Howard:  He was sent to isolation — the hole -  for getting into trouble.

[Sound from the film “Circle Up”]

A.J.: I sold drugs in prison, and I got into fights, and I went to the hole, and I got out of the hole. I had so much time to do - being in the hole is a part of the game.

Howard: But one day the monotony was broken. He got the message that Janet Connors wanted to talk. He agreed to a supervised, transcribed meeting.

[Sound from the film “Circle Up”]

A.J.: I remember sitting across the table from her.  I think I shook her hand when I first met her, and I don't think I looked in her eye. And I had nothing to say. She told me about herself, she told me her hurt.

Connors: It’s not going I didn't go in there angry, I did bring my anger, too, but I also brought — I brought pictures of Joel from the time he was a baby, all grown up, the last pictures of him and I together, the last pictures we had of him.

A.J.: … And I remember going back to unit and thinking to myself, "Whew, glad that's done." In a month after that, I was in the hole again for drinking and getting high on my birthday. The hell do I care?

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Janet Connors and her son, Joel (right).
Courtesy of Janet Connors
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Janet Connors' son, Joel James Turner
Courtesy of Janet Connors
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Howard: But something about talking face-to-face with Janet Connors stayed with him for a long time.

[Sound from the film “Circle Up”]

A.J.: And it wasn't till three or four years after that conversation that I looked at the transcripts while I was in the hole again and something hit me. It's right here in black and white. This conversation happened and this woman took a chance on you, and what the [expletive] are you doing. And I got it. And I remember just waking up in the middle night and just writing her a letter in the dark.

Connors: Dear Ms. Connors. How are you? Hopefully all is well for you and your family...

Howard: That's Janet Connors in the film reading part of that letter

[Sound from the film “Circle Up”]

Connors: You once gave me a tiny piece of your forgiveness. I'll do everything that I can to earn it all, bit by bit. I hope this letter isn't an intrusion. It's not meant to be a dash back into your life. I had things that I had to say and I thought that you should be the first to hear them. My very best to you, Ms. Connors.

Howard: Janet Connors was moved. She enrolled in restorative justice training. One technique involves sitting in an intimate circle facing an adversary, confronting the past and starting the healing. And then she trained others, including brokenhearted mothers just like her, and they have gone beyond prisons and into other settings, like schools. Meantime, A.J., serving his time, has stayed in touch on and off with Janet Connors.

[Sound from the film “Circle Up”]

A.J.:  Janet, to me, is a guardian angel. She gave me a chance, and I always told her I will do anything you ever ask me to do.

Howard:  One thing she did ask him to do was to talk to at-risk kids, and he did. Here he is talking to students in a circle, warning them not to act in the moment like he did.

[Sound from the film “Circle Up”]

A.J.: Just give yourselves a second to think. It's those split-second decisions that can change your [expletive] life forever. It takes two seconds. I can speak on that. Two seconds.

Howard: And so, another circle comes to an end.

[Sound from the film “Circle Up”]

A.J.: Listen, I just want to thank you guys. Thank you for having me, thank you for allowing me to be a part of this circle. I've never done anything like this. Thank you, Janet. I thank Janet every single night, you guys, it's … if you only knew. So I wish you guys the best, all right?

Howard: This audio was used with permission from Julie Mallozzi from her film “Circle Up,” which will be screened tomorrow at noon at Cambridge's Brattle Theatre. It's part of the GlobeDocs Film Festival.

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