Listen to Austin 360 Radio

'Balm in Huntsville' explores decades-old Austin case, path toward forgiveness

Nicole Villalpando
"There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System" by T. Carlos Anderson ($14.99, Walnut Street Books)

T. Carlos Anderson's "There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System" ($14.99, Walnut Street Books) is not an easy book to get through.

Anderson takes readers through the case of Andrew Papke, who was 19 on June 29, 1996, when he was driving down Brodie Lane while intoxicated and killed two teenagers who were coming home from a date. Papke was found guilty of intoxicated manslaughter and received two 20-year prison sentences.

Papke's story could have ended in prison, but instead, he went through the long process of restorative justice, meeting with the victims' families and trying to come to terms with the harm he had caused.

"There is a Balm in Huntsville" explores the process Papke and the families went through and illustrates how the restorative justice program in Texas started and some of the people who have benefited from it.

Anderson, an Austin pastor who writes an occasional faith column for Austin360 and serves as the director of community development for Austin City Lutherans, will talk about the book June 9 at BookPeople.

Related: Finding ways to create paths toward forgiveness after crime

Readers should know: The first five chapters of this book are incredibly difficult. Anderson details the entire events of June 29 from the start of Papke's drinking to the aftermath of the crash. You'll read about the couple who died and what they were doing. You'll learn what their parents were doing, too, as well as Papke's girlfriend. And you'll meet the mother and son who were coming home from a baseball game when they witnessed the crash.

Papke is not remorseful at first and blames the victims. Anderson understands why those first chapters can be difficult for readers, but that's part of Papke's transformation.

"Man who likes this guy? That's the point, but if you stay with him you're going to see he's got some good," Anderson says.

The book follows all of them from the sentencing through the years after. Some of the victims' family members are quick to forgive and ready for the restoration process; others continue to struggle.

While all the families knew Anderson was writing the book, not all of them wanted to be interviewed as part of it. Some of the names have been changed because of this.

The first inkling of Papke's good comes when he sits at the Thanksgiving table that November and realizes that nearby are two families with empty chairs at their tables. Against all advice, he fires his attorney and pleads guilty to the crime instead of pleading not guilty in hopes of getting a lesser sentence.

Anderson illustrates the disparity of Papke's sentencing and another similar case in the book. That case later helped Papke get a reduced sentence. He served 17 years and was released five years ago.

"Today he would say he did a right thing by pleading guilty," Anderson says. "He was able to learn a lot of things."

Anderson met Papke after he had been released. Papke came to Anderson's church to talk to the high school group about the effects of drinking and driving.

"From that point on, I had this idea that there's an incredible story," he says.

But the idea for the book originally came from Papke and the mother of one of the victims; they wanted to write a book together. Papke wrote a book about their experiences while he was in prison but never found a publisher.

"What Andrew told me, is this isn't a story about me," Anderson says. Instead, it was a story about all the people who came together to create the restorative justice program in Texas, which has been replicated in other states.

Yet, Anderson says Papke gave him the freedom to write about his process toward restoration, "even though it's a revisitation of something that is so extremely painful," Anderson says.

Papke went through two different restoration processes. One was less formal with the victim's mother writing to him and eventually visiting him in prison. The other was the formal program in which he heard from many victims of other crimes and went through the process with other prisoners.

Anderson says that while restorative justice "is not for everyone, there's some people that benefit from restorative justice. It's not a one-size fits all."

The key reason that Texas has been a leader in this process is that it's victim oriented and initiated, Anderson says. There's also a lot of preparation done by the victim and the offender. Also important, "the offender has completely got to give it up," Anderson says. There's not a "wink wink," he says, when it comes to owning up to the crime.

One of the things that Anderson has found encouraging about writing about restorative justice is that friends who were the "lock them up and throw away the key" types have changed their viewpoints. "That's been encouraging," Anderson says.

The ideal for restorative justice is for people to be able to move out of desperation, despair and darkness to a place of light, Anderson says. "It's an opportunity to go forward."

What's not in the book is the continuing story of Andrew Papke. He now lives in San Antonio, and while many people he knows there would never guess that he served 17 years in prison, he still lives with the devastation he caused on June 29, 1996.

"He still gets sweaty palms about what happened," Anderson says. And he dreams of that night often.

'There is a Balm in Huntsville'

T. Carlos Anderson speaks and signs copies of his new book.

When: 5 p.m. June 9.

Where: BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd.

Cost: Free to attend. Only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing.