A murdered child, a guilty teen, ‘Dexter’ and a very real hell

One of the big ideas of this website, oft repeated in a variety of wordings, is that if journalists want to understand real events in the real lives of real people in the real world, then — more often than not — they are going have to wrestle with very real religious issues. At some point, journalists have to take religion seriously and let people talk about the religious beliefs that help shape their actions in life.

The following story from South Louisiana — care of FelicianaToday.com (and an obvious hat tip to Rod Dreher) — is a perfect example of what we’re talking about.

This is a crime story about an irrational, hellish act of violence in which a teen-aged boy, inspired by hours of watching serial killers in pop culture (especially the cable-TV show “Dexter”), decided that slashing the throat of an 8-year-old boy would help him establish a new, powerful sense of evil identity.

Jack Attuso died, but Trevor Reese didn’t feel excited or uplifted after committing the murder. His own personal hell had just begun.

Reese pleaded guilty, to spare both families the pain of a trial. The issue facing the court was whether he would have any chance at parole.

That brings us to the following news report about the hearing, a long, agonizing story in which real people are allowed to say very real and very painful things. There are real curses. There are pleas for redemption. There is a father trying to figure out the sins of his son. There is the looming threat of hell, in this world and the next.

All I can say is this: Read it all, if you dare.

The story starts on a slow boil and the power of the language builds and builds. Here is a sample, after Reese was handed a picture of Jack:

The next witness was Wayne Attuso, Jackson’s grandfather, who gave a victim impact statement. …

Wayne said, “I want you to stare at that picture… because you will see that face when you wake up each morning, at times during the day, and before you go to sleep for the rest of your life. This is the curse that I put on you. You knew nothing about Jack. He was a little boy who loved life. We called him Smiling Jack because he went to bed each night with a smile on his face and he woke up each morning with that same smile. Every day was an adventure for him. The devastation you caused my family will heal eventually, but a scar will always be there. The hole you created in our hearts is filled with all the wonderful memories we have of Jack. In the weeks following Jacks death, I was insane with hatred. I never knew I was capable of the kind of hatred I had for you. Since then I’ve come to my senses and I don’t hate you anymore, but I will never forgive you. That’s not my job. That belongs to someone other than me. After today, I will close the chapter on you. You will not exist in our family’s world. It is my hope that if you ever do leave prison, it will be feet first in a pine box.”

That literal curse would surface again, later in the hearing. Yes, there’s more, as Reese unfolds his story and tries to apologize:

[Read more...]

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.

[Read more...]

God, gang graffiti and gunfire in L.A.

A heartwrenching story appears on the front page of today’s Los Angeles Times (see a television report here) on a worshiper killed outside a church:

The congregation was singing and praying Sunday evening inside Iglesia Principe de Paz, a weathered storefront church on Beverly Boulevard, when a parishioner checking on the food being set up in the parking lot saw something suspicious.

A young woman was spraying graffiti on a church wall. When he asked her to stop, she knocked him to the ground. Just then, Andres Ordonez and another church member rushed outside to help.

As they arrived, a man emerged from a nearby car and opened fire, killing Ordonez and wounding the other parishioner.

Churchgoers poured into the street, kneeling next to the victims and praying in Spanish, witnesses said.

“For God’s sake, if people going to church aren’t protected, then who is?” asked a nearby business owner who bolted out of his store when he heard the gunfire and saw the dead man lying on the asphalt, surrounded by loudly grieving parishioners.

The Times produced the story under difficult circumstances. Fearing for their safety, several witnesses spoke only on the condition of anonymity, the paper said. Meanwhile, church members are dealing with grief and shock, factors that complicate the reporting process.

Particularly given those constraints, I was pleased with the story. The Times provided basic details about the church and the victim while maintaining a respectful tone. Moreover, the paper managed to put a face on the victim, emphasizing his faith:

Ordonez, 25, who attended church regularly, was a cook and the father of a 1-year-old boy. One friend said Ordonez was a deacon and had been going to the church since he was 10.

“If you needed help, he would help you,” said the church’s handyman, Martin Delgado. He described Ordonez as humble, hardworking and accommodating.

“He was like the right hand of the pastor,” Delgado said. “From work to church, there was nothing else. To me, he was an extraordinary young man.”

Socorro Hernandez, 40, came to the church Monday evening, still in a state of disbelief that Ordonez was dead.

Hernandez knew the Ordonez family for years and said they were humble and religious. Ordonez’s father got up at 3 a.m. to collect cans around the neighborhood to support his family, she said.

The younger Ordonez, she added, wouldn’t walk by without offering a blessing.

“He was always talking about God. It was good morning, good evening and may God bless you,” she said, stifling tears.

If I were going to nitpick — and I guess I am — I’d say that I wished the story had elaborated on “religious.” Also, the church is identified as an “evangelical” church, but no other insight is provided. And it’s reported that the church is made up “largely of Guatemalan and Central American immigrants.” I have been to Guatemala, and it’s in Central America, so that description is a bit confusing.

As long as I’m nitpicking, this was the main headline in the print edition:

A church tagged, a parishioner slain

The story also refers to “parishioners.” But is parishioner the right term when referring to an independent church that has no parish, per se? When I see the term “parishioners,” I think of the Roman Catholic Church and other faith groups that have a parish system.

My fellow GetReligionistas were divided, by the way, on whether my parishioner concern rises to the level of over-the-top nitpicking.

Mollie said:

I have no problem with it, although I understand why you’re asking. I think it works in the larger context of joining with a group of people in a particular place.

George countered:

Well, it was a missed opportunity for the headline writer and the story’s author. What do they call members of that particular church? In my little town, one of the evangelical Hispanic congregations calls its members saints … santos.

Nitpicking aside, the Times deserves kudos for an excellent report produced on deadline under less-than-ideal conditions.