Monday, June 20, 2011

Confronting an attacker in court with forgiveness in her heart

Jessica Ziakin Cook hopes the stranger who attacked her will come out of prison a better man. Chad Hipolito photograph for the The Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 20, 2011


She hobbled from the front bench to the witness box, scars on her leg but forgiveness in her heart.

Jessica Ziakin Cook, 28, who plans on becoming an art therapist, faced her attacker in a Victoria courtroom on Friday.

“Your behavior was more than reckless,” she told him, “it was hateful.”

It nearly cost the young woman her life.

Twenty-two months earlier, a peaceful, fruitful life filled with university studies and church duties and volunteer work for a soup kitchen was intruded upon by an “overwhelming malevolence” that continues to haunt her to this day.

She had been asleep in her Esquimalt apartment with her husband, Matthew Cook, thrifty newlyweds whose wedding ceremony 24 days earlier had concluded with a potluck reception. The modest apartment was stocked with wedding gifts, many of which were inspired by her reputation as a chef. Among them was a set of new kitchen knives.

A noise startled her awake.

She left the bed to check on the cat, Mortimer, whom she addressed in baby talk. Seeing nothing amiss, she turned off the lights, went to the bathroom.

It was 4 a.m. on Sept. 9, 2009. Hours earlier, an 18-year-old man attended a concert by Die Mannequin and Marilyn Manson before retiring to Anderson Park to drink with friends. He then broke into a home on a cul-de-sac abutting the park, arming himself in the kitchen before hiding in the bathroom.

The intruder slashed at her. Her hand protected her throat, deflecting the blade to her collarbone. He lunged at her again, pushing a large kitchen knife through the back of her left leg, severing the femoral artery before the point came out the other side of her thigh.

“A very medieval injury,” she calls it now.

Her screams awoke her husband, who tussled with the intruder before tending to his wife. They called 9-1-1. Life seemed to ebb from Jessica with each heartbeat, a crimson pool spreading from her grievous wound. She remembers hanging up on the dispatcher, so that she and her husband could spend what they feared might be her final moments together.

The dispatcher called back.

The police arrived and, in the chaos, grabbed the husband.

She awoke in hospital a day later, a respirator down her throat. She had lost half her blood and would endure two operations to repair nerve and muscle damage. Two weeks in the hospital was followed by painstaking months of physiotherapy.

The attack had been so mysterious, a motive so unfathomable, she spent fearful days in hospital worrying that “at any moment someone might jump out from the curtains and finish me off.”

For a brief time, perhaps as long as a week, she tried unsuccessfully to become an atheist.

“I felt totally betrayed. We’d just been married. There was such a strong feeling of there being so much promise in our lives. That was coming to fulfillment and a blossoming. You feel like you’re in God’s favour and you assume you have this invincibility.”

The attack left her unwilling to close her eyes in prayer or meditation, a fear of the unthinkable now understandably too real.

As she recovered, she received knitted prayer shawls from the Anglican Church Women on Vancouver Island. A soup kitchen at which she volunteers held a fundraising dinner to help the couple cover their $1,125 monthly rent.

The couple have since moved to a new home. They are active in the Church of Saint Barnabas. They conduct Bible study in their apartment three times a month. On the second Wednesday of each month, she joins others at Theology on Tap, a two-hour discussion of faith and philosophy over pints at the Fernwood Inn.

In court, she decided to read her victim impact statement in the same tone she uses while reading from the pulpit in church. “Slower than you think you ought to,” she said.

She told court she felt her attacker should have been charged with attempted murder.

She told her attacker she did not believe his story of mixing up her house with another.

She told him she did not understand why he attacked her instead of fleeing.

She told him, “I hope your time in prison will be one of growth and fruitful soul searching.”

She told him, “I forgive you. I have no desire to gloat over your conviction, and in fact feel empathy for how scary this all must have been for you as well.”

Her husband, who works at a halfway home for parolees, also read a statement, as did the attacker.

“I held his eye as I told him I forgave him,” she told me. “It came as a blow to him. In a positive way.”

She said he showed contrition in his apologies. Earlier, he pleaded guilty to a charge of aggravated assault.

Judge Robert Higinbotham sentenced Alexander Vince Escobar, now 20, to five years in prison.

As sheriff’s escorted the handcuffed man from the courtroom, Jessica’s husband called out to him.

“Alex,” he said. “Good luck.”

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