Can forgiveness play a role in criminal justice?

That’s the provocative headline that accompanies a story I’ve been pondering ever since Amy Welborn brought it to our attention. The New York Times Sunday magazine piece runs about 7,000 words and it’s completely riveting. You can — and should — read it here.

It begins with 19-year-old Conor McBride turning himself into police for shooting Ann Margaret Grosmaire, his girlfriend of three years, in the head. He shot her after 38 hours of fighting. Then:

That night, Andy Grosmaire, Ann’s father, stood beside his daughter’s bed in the intensive-care unit of Tallahassee Memorial Hospital. The room was silent except for the rhythmic whoosh of the ventilator keeping her alive. Ann had some brainstem function, the doctors said, and although her parents, who are practicing Catholics, held out hope, it was clear to Andy that unless God did “wondrous things,” Ann would not survive her injuries. Ann’s mother, Kate, had gone home to try to get some sleep, so Andy was alone in the room, praying fervently over his daughter, “just listening,” he says, “for that first word that may come out.”

Ann’s face was covered in bandages, and she was intubated and unconscious, but Andy felt her say, “Forgive him.” His response was immediate. “No,” he said out loud. “No way. It’s impossible.” But Andy kept hearing his daughter’s voice: “Forgive him. Forgive him.”

At first he told his daughter she was asking too much. Then we hear about Conor’s parents Michael and Julie McBride. They were on vacation at the time of the shooting and the father rushed home — to the hospital, before the jail.

During the drive, he hadn’t thought about what he would actually do when he got to the hospital, and he had to take deep breaths to stave off nausea and lean against the wall for support. Andy approached Michael and, to the surprise of both men, hugged him. “I can’t tell you what I was thinking,” Andy says. “But what I told him was how I felt at that moment.”

“Thank you for being here,” Andy told Michael, “but I might hate you by the end of the week.”

“I knew that we were somehow together on this journey,” Andy says now. “Something had happened to our families, and I knew being together rather than being apart was going to be more of what I needed.”

And that’s how this amazing story begins — with two families benefiting from forgiveness in the face of a horrific murder.

Yes, Ann eventually died from her injuries. The story does a great job of weaving the role religion plays into this story. For instance:

Four days later, Ann’s condition had not improved, and her parents decided to remove her from life support. Andy says he was in the hospital room praying when he felt a connection between his daughter and Christ; like Jesus on the cross, she had wounds on her head and hand. (Ann had instinctually reached to block the gunshot, and lost fingers.) Ann’s parents strive to model their lives on those of Jesus and St. Augustine, and forgiveness is deep in their creed. “I realized it was not just Ann asking me to forgive Conor, it was Jesus Christ,” Andy recalls. “And I hadn’t said no to him before, and I wasn’t going to start then. It was just a wave of joy, and I told Ann: ‘I will. I will.’ ” Jesus or no Jesus, he says, “what father can say no to his daughter?”

At this point I basically want to cut and paste the entire story — you really do need to just go read it. The Grosmaire’s faith drives the entire plot, but the other players are given ample space to discuss their perspectives, too. It’s difficult to read graphic details about the murder in this context. Conor is painted in a descriptive light but not one that is entirely sympathetic. That adds a reality to the situation.

The other most interesting player in the story, to me, is Jack Campbell, the Leon County assistant state attorney who handles murder cases. What happens is that the Grosmaires and McBrides find out about “restorative justice” — a concept that strives for agreement — from victims, the offender and the community — on making amends.

I think it’s important to distinguish restorative justice from forgiveness, which may be obvious for others but took me some effort to see. Is it the job of the state to be involved in forgiving crime or is it the job of the state to see justice for crime? While forgiveness was an absolutely huge part of the story as far as the Grosmaires were concerned, the state — even while using restorative justice — was still focused on justice for the community, the victim and the aggrieved. It’s not that this is unmentioned in the story but at times I think that forgiveness and restorative justice were conflated.

Anyway, we get some interesting details about Sujatha Baliga, who directs the restorative-justice project at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in California. Her story, which includes an audience with no less than the Dalai Lama, is also well told.

Back to Campbell. We’re told that he was an obstacle to the use of restorative justice because he would decide what type of sentence to request. Would he be amenable to the group meetings that would work toward consensus on sentencing? To a point — he agreed to participate but not be held to the outcome.

The details of the group session are difficult to read, but very important and interesting. A nice subtext to the whole piece is how anger is present throughout, but is handled better in the end than it was in the beginning of the story.

Three weeks after the conference, citing Conor’s “senseless act of domestic violence,” Campbell wrote the Grosmaires to inform them he would offer Conor a choice: a 20-year sentence plus 10 years of probation, or 25 years in prison. Conor took the 20 years, plus probation.

Campbell told me that in arriving at those numbers, he needed to feel certain that “a year or 20 years down the road, I could tell somebody why I did it. Because if Conor gets out in 20 years and goes and kills his next girlfriend, I’ve screwed up terrible. So I hope I’m right.”

The piece ends on the theme of forgiveness. It’s just a wonderful read and one I almost wish was divided into two separate stories – one would be this story about this amazing family that forgave their daughter’s murdered. The other would be about the theological and philosophical and political and cultural implications of this type of justice. This article serves to whet the appetite for that kind of deep dig into those themes. Kudos to reporter Paul Tullis and editor Vera Titunik on a great piece.

Scales image via Shutterstock.

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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    A truly heart-wrenching story well written. I certainly hope Andy Grosmaire is able to complete his studies to become a Catholic deacon.

  • Jerry

    Any time I agree with Deacon Bresnahan you know there’s something fundamentally true going on. This is one such story. I don’t see how anyone with half a heart could read the story without reaching for a kleenex.

  • Julia

    Should be required reading for law students in criminal law class.


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