After a fatal car crash, a Maple Grove man turns to restorative justice

Two people stand and smile
Johnny and Yuvonne Palka were together for more than 60 years before her death in 2019.
Courtesy of Johnny Palka.

When Johnny Palka’s wife, Yvonne, was hit by a car and killed in November 2019, he had a choice: pursue traditional criminal prosecution for the driver, or something else.

The path he chose is commonly known as restorative justice, rooted in practices from Indigenous cultures around the world.

Public Safety is a big concern for many Minnesotans and a recurring issue as Minneapolis grapples with police reform. And restorative justice, while not new, is becoming more well known across Minnesota and beyond. During the 2023 legislative session, state lawmakers passed a bill to create a new office to promote restorative justice for juveniles.

MPR News Host Cathy Wurzer spoke with Palka, Natasha Lapcinski, founder and director of Dialogue Up, and a young woman we are calling “D,” who was the driver in the crash.

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We are not mentioning her name because of fear of being targeted.

This conversation originally aired in October 2022.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Public safety is a big concern for many Minnesotans and a recurring issue as Minneapolis grapples with police reform. There have been no shortage of political discussions about this topic. We wanted to explore a solution that, while not new, is becoming more well known across Minnesota and beyond. It's commonly known as restorative justice, and it's rooted in practices from Indigenous cultures around the world.

Last fall, I spoke with a man and a young woman who found themselves in a situation where they had a choice-- criminal prosecution or something else. Johnny Palka lives in Maple Grove, Minnesota. Johnny's wife Yvonne sustained life threatening injuries when she was hit by a car on November 9, 2019. She died a few weeks after.

"D" is the person who was driving the car. She was younger than 21 years old. MPR News has agreed to not use her real name because she has fears she may be targeted and harmed in other ways. We're also altering her voice. Johnny, I think I'm going to begin with you because it's important to begin by painting a picture of your wife for folks. Tell us about Yvonne.

JOHNNY PALKA: What can I say? I could give you a list of ways in which she was really special. First of all, she was an absolutely brilliant scientist. She was an adventurer. She was a totally wonderful mother. We had five grandchildren. Every single one of them loved her. She was a teacher.

Her students saw her in the same way, as somebody that they could really, really connect with, and she could teach them a whole lot in the process. As she was approaching retirement, she took up Asian brush painting-- [NON-ENGLISH]. She became really good at it. I mean, she was just so gifted and so loving.

CATHY WURZER: And things changed then the night of November the 9th of 2019 when you went out with friends and family.

JOHNNY PALKA: Both of us were in the warehouse district of Minneapolis in the evening because we were attending a performance of Indian classical dance. So we parked in the theater parking lot, and we were walking over to meet family and friends. And it was during this walk that the accident happened.

CATHY WURZER: I'm curious, D. From your perspective, what happened?

D: I think that entire day, I had a regular day. I was just going to get food and then on my way to pick up my brother. And I came down this kind of busy street where it was like a T crossing. And there was a car that was right beside me that was turning right at a stop sign, and I was going to turn left.

And when I pulled out, I saw an oncoming car coming from the right, so I tried to pull off from the stop sign in a little bit of a hurry so that the car wouldn't hit me because how close it was. And that's when I ran into Johnny and Yvonne.

And it was just-- it was pure-- just rushing on the street and just not taking my time enough for it to look for all the oncoming traffic and pedestrians, and it happened so fast and surprisingly.

CATHY WURZER: What do you remember thinking about at the moment of impact?

D: I immediately screamed, and I got out of my car. They both had fell to the ground, but Johnny was getting back up, and Yvonne was laying on the ground. And I got down on the ground with her, and it was cold. A lot of people had rushed over to kind of help at the scene and asked if we needed to call an ambulance.

I said yes. We put coats over her to keep her warm. Then, they took over. I was just in so much panic and so much sorrow. I couldn't stop crying. I wanted them to be helped, and I had never experienced anything like that before. I was just really sorry.

JOHNNY PALKA: What I experienced was being knocked to the ground. It sort of felt like it must have been the side of the car because that was just sort of sideswiped. I saw Yvonne lying on the ground, and people gathered all around her by that time.

And 9-1-1 had been called, and the police were on their way. They got there minutes later. When I looked around, I saw a car with a young woman standing by it weeping. And somebody must have told me that was the driver, so I went over to be with her for a little while.

CATHY WURZER: Now, I understand at the time of the crash, D was not charged or given a citation. But things took a turn, obviously, and the injuries from the accident led to complications for Yvonne. And three weeks later, there was this awful decision to withdraw life support, right?

JOHNNY PALKA: Yes. Yvonne had suffered a whole bunch of broken bones, but that was relatively minor. She had two hemorrhages in her head. In cases of injury like that, the outcome is unpredictable, and they told us it is not rare in such situations for the body to start to improve.

And it gives you hope, but brain function declines. And in fact, that's what happened with Yvonne, and that's why we decided to withdraw life support.

CATHY WURZER: And then D, I bet you received a phone call telling you what happened.

D: Yeah. Like Johnny was saying at the scene of the accident when the ambulance had came, they said that she was fine, and she just said she had a bump on her head, and that was the only pain that she was in. And they just kind of left me with the information.

And then I hadn't heard anything for months, and then that's when I had received the phone call. It was a big jump from her having a bump on her head, and I didn't even know that she had passed away.

CATHY WURZER: Johnny, I understand you were given a choice to pursue prosecution or a restorative justice process, and you chose restorative justice. Why would you do that? I bet a lot of people listening would say, hey, wait a minute. A life was taken here. There has to be some kind of consequence for D.

JOHNNY PALKA: So not much more than a month after Yvonne's passing, I received a call from the Office of the City Attorney. Did we want the City Attorney's office to initiate a criminal prosecution of the driver? And in preparation for this conversation, I was trying to be sure that I remembered exactly what happened.

And so I went back through all of my old emails, and I found an email that was sent by the investigator who called me to her supervisor. And I wanted to read it to you because it explains how this whole restorative justice process started. "Mr. Palka called today, and I spoke with him about the possibility of criminal charges against the driver.

He is wondering if you would be willing to meet with him in person to discuss it, and he also wants to bring his daughter. She did not witness the accident." and this is the important part. "He told me he wants something good to come of this if possible." So from the beginning, a criminal prosecution was the opposite of what I would want.

All it would do would be to wreck another life, and it would accomplish absolutely nothing. There's no way that Yvonne could be brought back to life. The best that we could hope for would be that there would be some positive outcome from that tragedy. And what that would be and how we would get to it-- I had no idea.

So when we had our conversation with the potential prosecuting attorney, we asked about restorative justice. And she said, oh, yes. It's well established within the legal system of Minnesota. They were even able to steer us to a person in the court system who was engaged in cases where restorative justice was being applied.

CATHY WURZER: I want to bring Natasha Lapcinski in here. I know you work with Seward Langfellow Restorative Justice, and you've been listening to Johnny and D talk. How common is it for someone in Johnny's position to be given a choice to pursue prosecution or try something else?

NATASHA LAPCINSKI: Every referral process is different. In this particular case, the County Attorney did ask the family what their wishes were. And while that's uncommon in most jurisdictions, it's obviously my hope that becomes more commonplace.

CATHY WURZER: Could you-- for folks who are not familiar with the concept-- explain what it is and how it plays out?

NATASHA LAPCINSKI: Typically what happens-- there's a lot of preparation to really decide if it's the right fit in time for everybody involved. With this particular situation, we had to contact D and let her know that a death did occur as a result of the accident. And from there, we engaged in a very in-depth conversation over the course of many weeks and months to prepare both the Palkas and D to explore what some sort of resolution might look like.

And any time you do these processes, that preparation is so vital because sometimes it's not the right thing to bring people together. In this particular case, it was very clear that it was the right thing. The outcomes are really dictated by the people most impacted, and that's what makes it so strikingly different from the traditional justice process.

Instead of a state actor deciding what is going to happen to this person, instead, we're asking those most impacted what happened-- and Johnny says this a lot-- without sugar coating anything. Nothing is kept secret. We bring it out into the open, process it, and figure out what the needs are of everyone involved.

Once we are able to do that, then we can make joint decisions on what an outcome would look like. The way that we view it is really viewing us as humans that are so interconnected that we need to have ways of really confronting painful situations in a way that not only address what happened but bring about fundamental change for people.

CATHY WURZER: D, curious. What did you find yourself thinking about when you went through the process? Not only thinking about things, but feeling about things as you went through this process.

D: It was a lot of roller coaster of emotions. Since the first day when I was contacted by Natasha and she informed me of Yvonne's passing, she just relayed the message to me so caring and with caution and told me I should sit down. And she explained to me that the Palkas didn't want to pursue legal action against me, which was mind blowing.

That's the only thing that I could think of. That's all that I knew. And she told me instead that they wanted to take this restorative justice route, which I knew nothing about. But she explained what would happen, and we met several times over Zoom to discuss what would happen and prepare me for meeting with the Palkas. And my first time meeting them, they were the kindest and most compassionate people I've ever met.

We talked about what happened that day leading up to the accident and how it actually happened and my perspective, and I told them just how I take full accountability for what I did and how truly sorry I was and they were beyond understanding of me.

After our reconciliation, we came up with an agreement for me to write a letter to Johnny and their two daughters. I truly love the Palkas, and they're a big part of my life now, so it's been a whole lot of emotions over the last couple of years.

CATHY WURZER: I bet it has. Say, Johnny, I'm wondering. With any grief journey, there's usually some anger involved. Did you have to push that aside in order to move forward with D in this process?

JOHNNY PALKA: It actually wasn't. I've sort of wondered about that, and I don't have any explanation for it other than the kind of person Yvonne was and the fact that after the accident we were so flooded with love from so many directions that anger was just not part of the picture. It wasn't something that I had to deal with.

It just keeps coming back to me. I have pictures of Yvonne, of course, and there's a particularly big one that I love. I took it on her 80th birthday, and it hangs on the wall in a very convenient location in our bedroom. And I go over, and I talk to her several times a day.

And I would say easily 8 or 9 times out of 10, the feeling that comes right to the surface is gratitude for the time we had together. Yes, she's gone. And no, she's not coming back. But the foundation of love and gratitude was there, and somehow, anger has simply not been a part of my experience.

CATHY WURZER: Which maybe made the process of restorative justice-- I don't want to put words in your mouth-- but a little easier, perhaps?

JOHNNY PALKA: Oh, I'm sure that that's the case.

CATHY WURZER: Natasha, what do you say to people who listen to this and say, well, OK. This sounds like this worked in this case. Does it work on all cases? Isn't this just a way to be kind of soft on crime? What do you say to that?

NATASHA LAPCINSKI: I'm so glad you asked this question because forgiveness is actually not a requirement for the restorative process to be successful. So it is really common for people to be angry or for people to be upset.

And that's all part of the facilitators working through that process until we make a determination of what feels like the right next step. These processes work in cases where people are less remorseful because, again, the focus is on really getting to the root of what the causation of the incident was and getting a lot of answers for people.

And myself as a sexual assault survivor that's been part of similar processes, I think the thing that is so unique is that you are given so much autonomy and power back when sometimes you feel like something's been taken away from you and that it doesn't come in this sort of revenge or punishment mindset, but instead it comes from this very human connection, and when something painful happens, you have to explicitly talk about it.

CATHY WURZER: I bet you saw that John Legend-- the singer, John Legend-- recently tweeted out support for 10 county attorney candidates around the country because they advocate for restorative justice practices. Do you see restorative justice gaining attention and momentum, perhaps?

NATASHA LAPCINSKI: Yeah. I think that, as we mentioned earlier, restorative justice is not new. What you're seeing is a combination of people that are familiar with it and then different things that happen within our world that cause people to reflect and see how ineffective our current justice system is.

And of course, with the murder of George Floyd, we're seeing even more people explicitly talking about the gaps. Regardless of where someone stands politically, the reason why it resonates so strongly is because we all have been on the receiving end of harm, and we all have caused harm. And when we really ask ourselves, what were our needs in that moment? The beauty and the power of coming up with solutions and having explicit conversations to address those things is incredible, and something that our current system just simply can't provide.

CATHY WURZER: D, I want you to tell folks what you learned from all of this. What did you take away?

D: I wanted to do whatever I could to answer any questions that they had, and I wanted to let them know how remorseful I was and how much. I understood them as much as they did me. I know a lot of people think the same way that I was thinking before I found out about it, which is like pressing charges and throwing that person in jail-- that's the only possible outcome for this situation.

And it's what would make this fair and would make it satisfactory. But this taught me sometimes you want and you need that closure and understanding more than avenging.

CATHY WURZER: And Johnny, what do you want to leave with people when it comes to what you've learned out of this process?

JOHNNY PALKA: That we're all human. None of us are perfect. And if we can follow a path that breaks the cycle when something bad happens, what emerges from it isn't something else bad and then something else bad and then something else bad. But that cycle is broken, and something good emerges out of it-- that's a huge step forward.

CATHY WURZER: This has been an extraordinary conversation between all of us here, and I want to end it, Johnny, with you. As a tribute to Yvonne, I would really like to play a song that either she liked or reminds you of her. What would you suggest we play right now?

JOHNNY PALKA: How about "Morning Has Broken?" Do you know that?

CATHY WURZER: Oh, Cat Stevens. Yeah, it's a good one. I like that.

JOHNNY PALKA: Thank you, Cathy. And it was very special to be invited to do this.


CAT STEVENS: (SINGING) Morning has broken like the first morning. Blackbird has spoken like the first bird. Praise for the singing, praise for the morning, praise for them springing fresh from the world.

CATHY WURZER: [INAUDIBLE] picked this song because it was a song they used to sing to their daughters when they were babies. Johnny Palka is a retired professor living in Maple Grove. His wife Yvonne was killed in a car accident in November of 2019. The young woman we're calling D was the driver of that car. We're not mentioning her name because of fear of her being targeted. Natasha Lapcinski is founder and director of Dialogue Up. She worked with the Seward Langfellow Restorative Justice Organization to create a restorative justice process for Johnny and D. This conversation was held last fall.

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