The death penalty and vague religion

In its most prime real estate – Column One — the Los Angeles Times recently carried the story of an inmate finding forgiveness on death row.

On the surface, it’s a compelling story with a strong religion angle:

Reporting from Dallas — They spoke just twice.

The first time was 10 years ago when Mark Stroman, armed with a sawed-off shotgun, pushed through the door of a Dallas gas station and furiously asked the dark-skinned clerk, Rais Bhuiyan, “Where are you from?”

The second was a brief phone call this summer before Stroman was about to be executed. “I forgive you and I do not hate you,” Bhuiyan told the man who had shot him in the face, blinding him in his right eye.

“Thank you from my heart,” Stroman said. “I love you.”

After all the commemorations on the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, there is a story left to tell. The events involving Stroman and Bhuiyan happened far from the scene of the attacks, but stemmed directly from them. Their story is a counterpoint to much of the narrative of the last decade, but is nevertheless central to it. It is a story about terror and revenge. But it is also about forgiveness.

Keep reading, and we learn that victim Bhuiyan hails from a “deeply religious Muslim family.” I’m still trying to decipher those adjectives — “deeply religious Muslim” — and would welcome your interpretation. Is “religious Muslim” redundant? Could one be “deeply Muslim” without the religion? But I digress.

Later, we discover that “another Muslim had been killed in a shooting nearby.” But no other details are given. So, there’s no way to know if the shooting was religiously motivated.

The role of faith in the victim’s life makes an appearance here:

In the ambulance rushing to the hospital, Bhuiyan recited from the Koran. He cried out for his mother. He remembered what she told him years ago. Follow the Islamic faith, she said, and forgive those who hurt you.

Is that vague enough for you? What did he recite from the Koran? What does the Islamic faith teach about forgiveness?

More religion appears later in the story:

Bhuiyan also heard his mother’s voice: “He is the best who can forgive.”

In 2009, Bhuiyan traveled to Mecca. For days he prayed, trying to let go of his anger. When he returned to the U.S., he viewed Stroman no differently than the Sept. 11 hijackers. “I saw Mark that same way. He had a closed soul just like them.” All of them were “ignorant,” he said.

Stroman wrote letters from prison to family and friends. “This was not a crime of hate but an act of Passion and Patriotism, an act of country and commitment, an act of retribution and recompense,” he said. He called himself the “first American to Retaliate and take a stand.”

“I may be a Bad American, but that’s tough!” He was “Texas Loud and Texas Proud,” he said. He ended his letters, “God bless America.”

By this year, however, Stroman’s rhetoric was softening. “Waiting patiently, looking deep within myself,” he titled a letter in June. He wrote about turning to the Christian religion, and how “this ride of death has truly changed me and I believe it’s part of the Master’s plan.”

I’d love to know more about Stroman’s conversion story. At the same time, the reporter appears to be relying on sources outside the prison (family and friends), so direct contact with the inmate may not have been possible. It’s unclear from the piece whether the reporter began work on the story before or after the lethal injection.

Moreover, stories involving death row inmates typically involve troubled souls (I’ll never forget a Tennessee death row inmate telling me that the government used scientific technology to control his mind and body). I did a piece a decade ago on a typical execution day in Oklahoma, and the day I chose just happened to involve an inmate who refused an interview and said nothing at his parole hearing or the lethal injection.

The Times does include a transcript of a final conversation between the inmate and victim:

Earlier in the day, though, Bhuiyan managed to speak briefly with Stroman by cellphone. The line was patchy, and for some time Stroman had been struggling with how to say he was sorry.

“Hey, man, thank you for everything you have been trying to do for me,” he told Bhuiyan. “You are inspiring. Thank you from my heart, dude.”

“Mark, you should know that I am praying for God the most compassionate and gracious,” Bhuiyan said. “I forgive you and I do not hate you. I never hated you…. This is from the bottom of my heart.”

“You are a remarkable person,” Stroman said. “Thank you from my heart! I love you, bro…. You touched my heart. I would have never expected this.”

“You touched mine too.”

I wish the Times revealed the source of the conversation. Did the victim tape it? Did the Times listen in on it? Did the victim recite it from memory?

My overall impression of the story: It’s a nice feature but too much of a skeleton — and not enough of a full body — as far as really exposing the religion ghosts.

Inmate image via Shutterstock.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Bill

    Good story, but I wish it were longer and more detailed, not only about the religious angle, but about the government lack of response to Mr Bhuiyan’s request to see Mr Stroman.

    Stroman, by what we can learn from the story, was not a stable, upstanding citizen. He was violent, and found in 9/11 a perfect excuse to kill. And he picked on the helpless. (The Texan in me wishes he had picked on a gas station attendant who shot first.)

    This story reminds me of Immaculee Ilibagiza, the Tutsi woman who survived the Rwandan genocide by hiding in a pastor’s bathroom for three months with seven other women. Almost all in her family were slaughtered. After the Hutu government was driven from power, she went to a prison to meet the man who murdered her mother. The man could not look at her. She reached out, touched him and said, “I forgive you.” The weight of her forgiveness was so great that the man collapsed.

    The prison guard was furious. “Why did you do that?” “Because,” she replied, “Forgiveness is all I have left.”

    I agree with Terry that terms like “deeply” and “devoutly” are nebulous and often mushy, filler adjectives. But when I read Ms Illibagiza’s book, I couldn’t help but think she was a deeply, devout religious woman.

    I’m reminded by these death row conversion stories that it is never too late to repent and never too late to be forgiven. I’m reminded, too, that there are many faces of Islam, as there are many faces of Christianity and Judaism. What face shall I wear today? O, for the courage of Mr Bhuiyan or Ms Illibagiza!

  • Julia

    I’m reminded by these death row conversion stories that it is never too late to repent and never too late to be forgiven.

    We forget sometimes that in the 19th century instead of just punishing those convicted of crime, they were sent to new “penitentiaries” whose purpose was rehabilitating the person. That’s when they started having crafts, chapel, counselling in addition to giving a chance to atone for wrong-doing.

    It would be interesting to have an in-depth article about those intentions of do-gooders in the 1800s and track how we have seen the purpose of confinement over the years since then.

    There’s always the issue of keeping dangerous people off the street and offering controlled revenge for the victims, in addition to re-hab. But there’s usually one attitude that is predominant in any era or geographic area.

    And were those attempts to reform “bad” people connected to religious principles? Has increasing secularism changed how and how long we incarcerate people?

  • Jerry

    I’m still trying to decipher those adjectives — “deeply religious Muslim” — and would welcome your interpretation. Is “religious Muslim” redundant? Could one be “deeply Muslim” without the religion?

    “Deeply Jewish” could be strong secular identification with being Jewish and “Deeply religious Jewish” would obviously talk to religion. I don’t think that applies to other religions. Instead one might say “Deeply Irish”.

    But on the other hand, I tend to think “huh?” when reading “deeply Muslim” and wonder if the writer meant “deeply observant(pious?) Muslim”.

    But a google search has on the order of 5500 hits on “deeply Muslim” and 28,500 on “deeply religious Muslim”. So I think it’s a matter of taste with more people using “deeply religious Muslim”.

  • Eric Shafer

    For more on this story, see our story at . It answers some of the questions raised here.

  • Bobby

    Thanks for the link, Eric. The video is extremely helpful.

    It’s strange to me that the Times fails to mention the victim starting World Without Hate. That seems like a relevant detail. Am I too cynical, or was the paper trying to make the victim seem like more of an ordinary citizen who forgave than someone who has turned into a full-fledged advocate against hate, if that distinction makes any sense?