Thirty-two years ago, Dana Reynolds celebrated the only Mother’s Day she ever had with her first child.
The next day, 4-month-old Brittany was brutally beaten to death by her then-boyfriend, Jose Lopez.
But ahead of this Mother’s Day, the Columbus mom is sharing — for the first time — how she confronted her baby’s killer and found closure, and how she’s helping other victims of violent crime do the same.
The Ledger-Enquirer has long reported on the 1987 case, which ended with Lopez being convicted of murder. For almost three decades, Reynolds fought to keep him in prison, showing up to parole board hearings and even going door-to-door to get petitions signed.
She stopped fighting after going through Victim Offender Dialogue, a state program that enabled her to free herself from the guilt she felt for leaving Brittany with a man she trusted that day, May 11, 1987, when she was just 18.
Asked why she agreed to share her story, Reynolds said, “If one victim can feel the weight lift off their shoulders — just one — by completing that, then it’s worth it.”
Reynolds learned about the program in 2013, when she met with the parole board during one of her repeated and, at the time, successful attempts to keep Lopez in prison.
She thought, “What’s it going to hurt? Why not? It’s just one more step I could take to healing.”
Here’s what she wanted to heal:
“I was also naïve and insecure and just a doormat at 18,” she said. “So I wanted him to see me, to see that I was not that 18-year-old girl anymore. I wanted him to know what I went through to keep him there as long as I could.
“Also, it was an opportunity for me to express to him how my life was after that, my inability to trust, my second-guessing every decision I made, the tics and the OCD — all the things that’s because of his actions — and also it was an opportunity for me to give him the guilt that I carried.”
Reynolds’ sister, Donna Carter, initially didn’t think her participating in the victim’s program was a good idea.
“I didn’t understand or see the benefit,” Carter said. “It was kind of like, ‘Why would you want to even see him? Why would you want to be in the same room with him?’ It was almost like revisiting the pain again.”
Face to face
Victim Offender Dialogue is run by the Georgia Office of Victim Services, part of the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. It allows a victim or survivor of violent crime to speak in-person with the offender, who is allowed to decline the request. But offenders who agree to participate must accept responsibility for their crime.
A facilitator from the victim services office meets separately with both parties and counsels them in multiple sessions until they say they are ready. Reynolds’ preparation lasted about a year.
Since the VOD was established in Georgia seven years ago, 36 dialogues have been completed, according to Steve Hayes, public affairs director for the pardons and paroles board. Other states have similar programs, he said.
“The program’s success is based on the victim and their take-away and also the number of completed VODs,” Hayes told the Ledger-Enquirer via email. “Victims who have been helped by the program speak to its success.”
Just ask Reynolds. She declared that her facilitator, whom she knows as Chaplain Miller, “changed my life. He truly did. He got me to see that the guilt was something I could actually give over. I didn’t think it was possible when he started talking about it.”
To help her understand, Chaplain Miller offered a metaphor: If you put your money in a bank and the bank folds, whose fault is it that you lost your money?
The victim is allowed to have a silent support person in the room during the VOD. Reynolds chose Donna Carter, her sister. They call each other their best friend.
A month before the dialogue, Reynolds started practicing what she would say to Lopez for about 30 minutes a day.
“I did not want to leave with regrets,” she said.
She also practiced during weekly phone conversations with her sister. Carter laughed as she recalled the list of things Reynolds wanted to say grew from five to more than 50.
The day before the dialogue, they drove the 80 miles to Calhoun State Prison, toured the prison and saw the conference room where the meeting would happen.
Reynolds gave a list of prepared questions to Chaplain Miller, who shared them with Lopez. The victim doesn’t have to stick to the script, but it gives the offender a general idea of what they’ll talk about.
The sisters stayed the night in a nearby hotel. Reynolds’ biggest fear of meeting with her child’s murderer was that it would set her back after 28 years of trying to rise above the nightmares and flashbacks.
“I also was afraid that I would leave him feeling even worse than I did going in,” she said.
Her biggest hope was to leave her guilt behind.
Reynolds and Carter were first to arrive in the prison’s conference room that morning, Oct. 14, 2015.
“I was so incredibly anxious,” Reynolds said. “… I kept looking to my sister in the corner, and she would nod, giving me strength. I could hear him outside of the door and got even more anxious.”
The man Reynolds saw enter the room wasn’t the good-looking, well-built, smiling and funny ex-boyfriend she remembered.
“He was, in the best way I could describe it, an old, beaten-down man,” she said. “He was hunched over, had aged tremendously, would not look me in the eye.”
Seeing his condition, Reynolds said, felt like “just a blanket of calm came over me. … All the anxiousness was gone.”
And she was pleased.
“He murdered my daughter with his bare hands,” she said. “I mean, it’s not a case of shaken baby syndrome. She was beat to death, 4 months old. So I was glad to see that he has suffered.”
Chaplain Miller sat at the end of the rectangular table, with Reynolds to his right and Lopez to his left. Carter observed from the corner.
A guard took off Lopez’s handcuffs and left. But Reynolds knew to expect that.
On the table and facing Lopez, Reynolds placed a portrait of Brittany — the only one she has.
“My daughter had a voice through me,” she said. “… At first, it was difficult. But once I did it, all I could think about it was, ‘I’m doing it for you, Brittany. I’m here for you..’”
The dialogue lasts as long as the victim wants it to last, with a break if requested. Reynolds’ dialogue lasted 2½ hours. She did nearly all the talking.
‘Look at me’
Reynolds “never” broke eye contact with Lopez, she said, and he mostly avoided looking at her.
Lopez was stoic, according to the sisters. “He was very disengaged,” Carter said, “very nonexpressive.”
Reynolds never cried, never choked up.
“She was very calm,” Carter said, “very direct, very strong, very forthright — unwavering.”
Her resolve, she said, came from “God’s hand on my back and Brittany in the room.”
Reynolds began by asking Lopez, “Could you look at me?”
He looked away.
“I want you to look at her,” she told him, pointing to Brittany’s portrait.
“That dress she is in is the one she was buried in,” Reynolds told him.
Lopez didn’t respond.
Reynolds reminded him about their relationship, that he had promised he loved her and wanted to adopt Brittany and for her to call him Daddy. Then she told him that she had changed.
“I’m a strong, independent woman,” she told him. “I want you to know why you’re still here — because I never gave up fighting for my daughter.”
Reynolds had gone door-to-door to get signatures on a petition to deny him parole.
“You’re here because of your actions,” she told him, “but you’re still here because of mine.”
“I always wondered,” Lopez said.
Then she asked him whether he remembered beating Brittany and how he killed her. That surprised her. Those weren’t in her prepared questions, but she’s glad she asked.
“I wanted him to feel uncomfortable,” she said. “I wanted him to think about what he did, and I wanted him to put it into words. But I did not realize at that time that his answers did not matter to me.”
“What mattered was that I just got all this out. All the questions I’d been asking myself, I was able to ask them.”
She asked how he would feel if someone killed his daughter. “I’d want to kill them,” Lopez said.
She asked whether the punishment fit the crime. He said yes.
She asked whether he believes in God. He said yes.
She asked whether the other inmates know he’s a baby-killer. He said yes.
She asked what he would do if he received parole. He was noncommittal, Reynolds recalled.
‘I take it back’
Reynolds asked Lopez whether he remembered when they were in the hospital, before she was able to see Brittany, that the doctor asked, “Who’s been beating this baby?” And when Reynolds’ mother yelled Lopez’s name, Reynolds defended him.
“On behalf of my daughter, I take it back,” she said.
Lopez just nodded.
Then she told him about the guilt she carried for leaving Brittany with him.
“I’ve come to realize,” she told him, “that I did not do this, that my actions did not cause her to be murdered, that it’s you — and you alone. … Right now, as of this moment, I’m giving you all of the guilt. You will carry it. It is yours to bear. I will leave here guilt-free.”
Lopez responded, “OK.”
Looking back, Reynolds told the L-E, “I actually felt he accepted it.”
During a 15-minute break, called by Chaplain Miller, Reynolds conferred with her sister. Carter gave her encouraging feedback.
“She was sitting there in front of this monster, and she did it so calm and collected and with such directness,” Carter said. “I don’t think I could ever be more proud of my sister than that day.”
After the break, Lopez spoke first — just two words, Reynolds recalled: “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t care,” she told him.
“It doesn’t change anything,” she told the L-E. “If he is truly sorry, that’s great. If he wants forgiveness, that’s between him and God.”
In her closing statement, Reynolds told Lopez, “You are the man that murdered my daughter. … You carry this guilt.”
When she was finished, Lopez left the room without speaking. As she watched him depart, Reynolds said, “It felt like relief. … It’s over. This is over. My 28-year fight is over. I’ve done everything I can do. I have no regrets.”
The sisters sat quietly and smiled at each other. Then they hugged, Carter said, “and we cried out of happiness.”
Felt like a superhero
Leaving the prison, Reynolds felt stronger than she thought she was — like a superhero.
“I couldn’t believe I did it,” she said.
Carter remarked, “I witnessed her transform. When we walked out of the prison, she was actually walking taller. That weight she was carrying for 27 years, it was gone. It had lifted.”
The only disappointment Reynolds expressed was that she thought Lopez’s answers were “disingenuous. I just felt like he went through the motions and just said the bare necessities of what he needed to say.”
But the experience energized her to be an advocate for other victims and survivors of violent crime. She sat with another woman — now her friend — through a weeklong trial involving another ex-boyfriend charged with killing the mother’s infant.
“I didn’t think I could do that,” Reynolds said.
Lopez was paroled five months after the dialogue, in March 2016. He is banned from living in the judicial circuit and prohibited from contacting Reynolds.
Hayes, the parole board’s spokesman, said whether an offender participates in VOD isn’t a factor in the board’s decision.
“The VOD is victim-centered, meaning it is for the victim,” he told the L-E via email. “Offenders are informed that by participating in a VOD that it is not going to hurt or help them regarding possible parole. Participation in VOD is not considered when determining parole for an offender.”
When notified by letter of Lopez’s parole, Reynolds said, she wasn’t upset.
“I knew one day it would happen,” she said. “From what I understand, he did everything right in prison.”
Whether it was in writing or in person, Reynolds five times successfully fought against Lopez being released. This time, however, she chose not to object. The dialogue helped her with that decision.
“If I had not done the VOD, I know that I would not have accepted him getting out the way I did,” she said.
‘God knows my heart’
Reynolds twice has been a guest speaker during VOD training for facilitators, to give them a victim’s perspective. Being a victim’s advocate, she said, adds purpose to her life and Brittany’s life.
She encourages facilitators to not tell victims, “Everything happens for a reason” because “when you’re dealing with a violent crime, that’s hard to hear, and it’s hard to accept.”
She tells the victims, “There’s evil in the world. There’s bad people. You have no control over it. Remember your loved ones for fighting for justice. Give them a voice they no longer have. Let people know they lived. Let them know their story. Let them know your story. And, in doing that, they’re living through that.”
The question she most often gets about the dialogue she had with Lopez is whether she has forgiven him.
Her answer: “God knows my heart.”
Mother’s Day memories
Mother’s Day is “truly the definition of bittersweet” for Reynolds.
She is a paralegal for lawyer Michael Reynolds, and they’ve been married for 20 years. She had three children after Brittany: Justin (30), Elizabeth (25) and Kathryn (18).
“I cherish my Mother’s Day with them,” she said. “And I always remember Brittany on Mother’s Day — always. I take a moment to reflect that I did have a Mother’s Day with her.”
Elizabeth named her daughter in honor of Brittany. Kathryn has been dating a boy named Jose. So the day when Jose was a guest at their family gathering and asked whether he could hold Brittany, Reynolds recalled, “My heart dropped.”
Now, she enjoys seeing them together.
“Brittany just loves him,” Reynolds said. “When he comes in, she lifts her arms up for him.”
Watching that Jose lovingly interact with that Brittany, Reynolds said, “It’s like I’ve come full circle.”
For more information about the Victim Offender Dialogue, call the Georgia Office of Victim Services at 404-651-6668 or 1-800-593-9474. The email address is email@example.com.