Most people who commit a crime try to run from it. However, this man did the opposite, and his decision to turn himself in ended up changing his life for the better.
In May 2017, 23-year-old James Scott Berish was putting a handgun away in his apartment in Durham, North Carolina. He had removed the magazine, and believed the gun was unloaded.
Unbeknownst to him, there was a still a bullet in the chamber. When he attempted to clear the weapon, he accidentally fired it.
The bullet traveled through the floor, hitting a sleeping Deisy Medina in the stomach in the apartment below. Medina was only 10 years old at the time.
Fortunately, her wound was not life-threatening, and she was released from the hospital after two days. But it left her scared to go back in her bedroom, WRAL reported at the time.
Initially, Berish was afraid. He ran to his aunt’s house after firing the gun.
A few hours after fleeing, he saw on the news that the bullet had hit a child. Berish had a 2-year-old daughter and as soon as he found out he had shot a kid, he went to the police station and turned himself in.
He made a full confession, even before the police knew which case he was talking about.
Berish was then formally arrested and charged with assault with a deadly weapon. He was facing jail time for the offense.
Assigned to his case was Associate District Attorney Kendra Montgomery-Blinn. She got a call from a police officer which set the tone for the next move.
“[The police were] calling to let me know that Mr. Berish had turned himself in. The officer was letting me know that he felt like he was genuinely remorseful,” Montgomery-Blinn told Humanity.
As a result of his candor and taking responsibility for his crime, the prosecution offered Berish an alternative option to prison.
If he plead guilty to the charges against him, and attended a program called the Restorative Justice Clinic, he would avoid jail time.
Montgomery-Blinn was familiar with the concept of Restorative Justice, but it had never been applied to a felony case in North Carolina before.
The Restorative Justice Clinic is a program sponsored by the Campbell University School of Law. It aims to bring offenders and victims together to focus on the healing of both parties instead of simply punishing the offender.
To do this, the clinic employs a variety of methods to help both offenders and victims understand the circumstances surrounding crime, and ultimately find resolution.
Montgomery-Blinn met with the Medina family to see if they were interested. The Restorative Justice program is victim-led, so their participation was vital. They agreed.
Afterward, Montgomery-Blinn met with Berish and his attorney, Nisha G. Williams, to see if they were willing to participate in the Restorative Justice Clinic.
Berish knew that he had committed a crime, and wanted to take responsibility for his actions.
RIGHT NOW: A groundbreaking “restorative justice” plea happening now in #Durham court.
James Berish is accused of firing a gun through his apartment floor. It hit 10-year-old Deisy Medina in the stomach. #WRAL pic.twitter.com/V9ZHdkJYkv
— Sarah Krueger (@WRALSarah) April 5, 2018
“It wasn’t a hard choice. It was the right choice,” Berish told Humanity.
During the first session of the program, Berish, Williams, his girlfriend, and aunt met with the program’s director, John Powell and a couple of his law students.
Over the next two hours, Berish was able to discuss the shooting, why he thought it happened, how he felt about it, and what he wanted the victim’s family to know.
“[I was trying to] just find out where I was coming from up on the situation that happened, and let me know how the family was feeling up on the situation. Just trying to get closure,” Berish explained.
The next step was for Powell and his students to meet with Deisy’s family to hear their perspective. They told the family about how the shooting had occurred, and how Berish was remorseful for his actions.
This back and forth would continue for almost a year in an attempt to get both parties to express their views and feelings about the shooting, and to build trust between them.
Initially, Berish was skeptical about the Restorative Justice program.
Powell invited Berish to one of his law classes to share his story. While there he learned more about how Powell and the class were trying to expand the program in Durham.
That experience made Berish commit himself entirely.
“If this program can help a lot of young gentlemen out there like me, then I’m willing to push this program,” Berish said during a phone interview.
“After a while I got comfortable with it. I was more excited. I was actually more excited to meet Deisy. It opened my eyes.”
The final part of the process was meeting Deisy and her family for the first time. For Berish, that meeting was the most important part.
When Berish first saw Deisy, he cried.
The case of James Berish, who admitted to shooting Deisy Medina through the floor of his apartment in May 2017, was the first restorative justice felony case in the state.What are your thoughts on this?
“It was exciting. A lot of people thought it was going to be tough, but it was exciting. Just knowing that she was walking and that she was happy, it was just exciting,” he said.
It was also an emotional moment for Montgomery-Blinn.
“It was beautiful. I can’t describe it. It was the kind of thing that you dream about in law school,” she said.
After Berish had completed the Restorative Justice Clinic, he felt lucky.
When the judge accepted his completion of the program and his guilty plea, Berish was overcome with joy. In fact, he felt blessed.
“God was on my side,” he said.
Montgomery-Blinn felt like the end result was the beginning of something new. And, indeed, the case made history as the first of its kind in the state.
“I feel like the criminal justice system is changing, and we are right there on the cusp of it,” she remembered thinking.
Part of Berish’s responsibilities as a result of his guilty plea is that he is required to speak at two gun safety events.
He was also required to give a gift to Deisy and the court.
After learning about Deisy’s interest in art, Berish gave Deisy and the courthouse an art supply basket for children who are waiting for their parents’ court proceedings to finish.
To this day, both Berish and Deisy’s family continue to maintain a positive relationship.
And Berish is clear about what he has to do now.
“Stay out of trouble. Do the right things, and take care of my daughter,” he stated.