RICHMOND, Va. -- Andrew White, 23, was Oakes' "big brother" and pled guilty to unlawful hazing and purchasing alcohol for a minor. As part of his plea deal that included no jail time, was the White would take part in a restorative justice meeting with the Oakes family.
"We just want some answers. We have so many questions and no answers on a lot of things. We felt that that would be a great way to get some of our questions answered," Eric Oakes, the father of Adam Oakes, said.
Oakes shared this sentiment in early March, following a guilty plea and sentencing for one of the men charged in the death of his son Adam Oakes, as to why his family had agreed to the plea deal offered to the suspect.
Oakes was a 19-year-old freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University and an underground pledge at the now-expelled Delta Chi fraternity.
He died of alcohol poisoning following a frat party where he was made to large amounts of alcohol. 11 men were charged in relation to his death.
Oakes family is hopeful that the restorative justice meeting with White will help bring some answers to the tragedy they have been facing.
"It's a mediation between him and our family," said Oakes' cousin, Courtney White, following the sentencing. "And we'll get to hear the events of the night that occurred up to Adam's death. And they'll also be able to pose questions to better understand and to clarify exactly what happened."
The restorative justice program is a new option for Richmond's Commonwealth's Attorney's Office (RCAO) through a federal grant awarded through the Department of Criminal Justice Services.
"It's an opportunity for the victims, and the person who is charged in the case, to meet in a safe environment with a trained facilitator," explained Kelli Burnett, who runs the program as a Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney with the Criminal Justice Reform Unit in the RCAO. "We're looking at responsibility and healing and accountability."
Prosecutors find cases that qualify, including needing identifiable victims and suspects and both parties agreeing to take part.
Some crimes won't be considered, like with child victims, domestic violence or a deadly weapon.
"The justice in those cases will be better met by the traditional criminal justice prosecution," Crystal Foster Fitzgerald, a supervising assistant of the Commonwealth's Attorney, said.
If approved, they then go to the Virginia Center for Restorative Justice.
"Our mission is to turn hurts into healing," Judy Clarke, the founder of the center, said.
Clarke said trained mediators bring the two parties together and aim to answer certain questions.
"What happened? Who was harmed? How are they harmed? And what can we do to repair the damage that was done?" Lou Freyer, a secretary of the board for the center, said.
Repairing the damage means steps the suspect takes to complete the program, such as repayment or community service.
"When we have a case that is not complete, then it goes back to the court and due process takes place," Clarke said.
While the initiative is new for Richmond's adult courts, it was been used since 2015 in Richmond and Henrico juvenile courts. Clarke said they have mediated close to 100 cases and had a success rate of around 87%, which means the suspect hasn't ended back in traditional court a year after the restorative justice session.
So far, four cases have been referred to the adult courts, including Oakes, and prosecutors say one was a successful meeting and the charges will likely be dropped next week.
As for further growth of the program, VCRJ said they hope to restart one in Richmond and Henrico schools that was derailed by the pandemic. They are also working with prosecutors in the Williamsburg area.
Additionally, Commonwealth's Attorney Colette McEachin will host an event this Wednesday to discuss the programs and initiatives run by her office. The event is from 6 PM to 7:30 PM at the VCU Health Hub at 25 Street and will be in-person and virtual. Those interested in the event can register here.