Forgiveness, Murder and the Law

This particular post will probably earn me a few brickbats. But I think it needs to be said.

Deacon Greg Kandra, who blogs at The Deacon’s Bench and Leah Libresco, who blogs at Unequally Yoked, each wrote posts about a New York Times Magazine article concerning forgiveness in the case of murder.

The article in question is a fascinating read about two Florida parents who were able to forgive their daughter’s murderer and then seek a reduced sentence for him. They used a process that is normally reserved for lesser crimes called restorative justice. Both Deacon Kendra and Leah Libresco seem to have positive feelings about this situation. In fact, the consensus opinion seems to be a sort of be-still-my-heart flutteriness. It. Is. So. Sweet.

My reaction, as someone who writes laws on one day and then deals with their consequences in her constituents’ lives on another day, is totally different. I know better than many people who will read this post why we need prisons. I also know better than many people who will read this post that criminals, even murderers, are people.

I grew up in a rough neighborhood that was full of violent people. I played with children when I was little who grew up to murder people later on. I knew them both before and after they committed these crimes. I also know people who have lost their mothers, fathers, sons and daughters to murder, including but not limited to, the mass murder of the Oklahoma City bombing.

I represent a district with the highest number of ex-offenders of any district in Oklahoma. I have constituents who commit violent crimes and I also have constituents who are the victims of violent crimes. Sometimes, these are the same people, or are from the same family. I know a dear couple who lost their mother to murder and whose son later was executed for the unrelated crime of committing a murder during a robbery.

I’ve seen forgiveness that passes understanding. I’ve seen vengeance that also passes understanding. I’ve seen, close up and personal, the hollowing out grief of losing a child to murder.

I have also seen our criminal justice system at work.

All of this has led me to two conclusions.

(1) I oppose the death penalty in this country. Long before I was a Christian, I did not believe that we should execute people in this country. People are too weak, too prone to take shortcuts, manipulate and lie to ever entrust our judicial system with the ability to put human beings to death.

(2) I also oppose a victim-driven criminal justice system. 

Based on what was said in the article I read, and assuming that the facts in it were accurate and that there aren’t other, ameliorating circumstances, I have no doubt that the young man in question should have received a sentence of life in prison without the option of parole. Let me be clear about what I’m saying here: He committed a deliberate act of cold-blooded murder against an unarmed young woman who was on her knees in front of him at the time. He shot her in the face with a shot gun.

He should live out the rest of his life and die in prison for that crime.

The article tells the story of two parents who were able to forgive their daughter’s murderer. It sounds as if they did this almost at her death bed. They then sent messages to her murderer while he was in jail awaiting trial that they “still loved him.” They followed through on this by working with the young man’s parents to help him avoid, not just the death penalty, but any serious prison time for what he had done.

They convinced the prosecutor to enter into a process which is normally reserved for non-violent crimes known as “restorative justice” to deal with this young man. They did this, and the prosecutor agreed to it, despite the fact that no one debated that the young man was a cold-blooded murderer.

The girl’s parents entered this process with the idea that the young man should receive 5 years in prison for his crime. After hearing the details of how he killed their daughter, they were moved by emotion to ask for sentences ranging from 5-15 years. The prosecutor, after what he says was much “thought,” decided to give the killer a sentence of 20 years with 10 years probation.

Evidently, most people who read this story go all touchy-feely and misty-eyed.

I don’t.

In fact, the story gives me the creeps.

I view this sentence as a violation of the public trust on the part of the prosecutor. I also view it as a fine example of the nonsensical things that happen when we move to a victim-driven justice system.

Victims of violent crimes, and in the case of murder, their surviving families, react with raw emotion to the terrible things that have been done to them. This can make them demand guilty verdicts, even if that means doing away with a fair trial. It can lead them to push with everything they’ve got for harsh sentences, even when the sentence is out of proportion to the crime. On the other hand, in other cases like the one in this story, their hunger to express the forgiveness they have been able to reach can lead them into working for sentences that are also out of proportion, but this time on the side of leniency.

I have respect for anyone who can forgive from the heart when something as terrible as having your daughter shot in cold blood happens to them. That is what the parents in this story went through. Their daughter was shot in the face with a shot gun by an abusive boyfriend who had slapped her in previous arguments.

Let me repeat that: Their daughter was shot in the face with a shot gun by an abusive boyfriend who had slapped her in previous arguments.

Due to their intervention, their daughter’s murderer received a sentence of 20 years with 10 years probation for murdering a young woman who was on the cusp of a productive adult life.

The reason that story gives me the creeps is the bland assumption on the part of everyone that this crime was somehow or other a private thing between the murderer and the murdered girl’s family. The assumption seems to be that murder is a private injury, and that if the family of the murdered person can be satisfied by whatever sentence is arrived at, then justice has been done.

I absolutely do not believe this. Murder is not a private offense between family members. Murder is a crime against all of society. When a murderer is brought to trial, the case reads The people of the state of Oklahoma, or Florida or wherever vs The Murderer. It does not say the family of the murder victim vs the murderer.

By allowing this process to occur and then honoring it, the prosecutor set the people and their just demands for a working criminal justice system that is driven by law and not emotion aside. He focused his concerns on the victim’s family and the murderer himself. His question was not is he guilty? but Will he do it again? In short, he tried to use some sort of crystal ball to foresee the future and based his sentence on whatever he saw in his forecast. All in response to a victim-driven process.

There are reasons why the law takes the murder of an innocent person so seriously. There are reasons for harsh penalties for this crime. There are also reasons why the various laws allow for ameliorating circumstance. Not every murder is deliberate and cold-blooded. This one was.

I have sympathy and respect for the parents of this murdered girl. I am somewhat in awe of their Christian faith which allowed them to forgive this young man. However, when I read things about them visiting him in jail and working to lower his sentence; about them sending him messages saying that they “still love him,” I hear echoes of the many bereaved people I know.

I can’t talk about the things my constituents tell me. But I will say that there are people who form relationships with their children’s murderers and visit them in prison and actually claim they’ve come to love them. It’s not so unusual as you might think. It also isn’t so appealing in real life.

There is no one more lost and hollowed out than someone whose child has been murdered.  They want something, some contact with their lost child, and they are searching for it in the person who murdered them.

Some victims’ families want to “confront” their loved one’s murderer and ask the question that everyone who encounters the senseless violence of these devil-driven people asks. They want to know “Why?” Why did you do this to me? How could you do this to my child? Don’t you know, can’t you see how precious, how beautiful, how irreplaceable, she was?

They want something they can never have, which is satisfaction, and closure. The closure myth, the healing nonsense we spout after public tragedies feeds this mythology of “going on” as if nothing had happened. In truth, while they may appear to go on, and in fact may do that, they will never completely heal and they will never, this side of the grave, find closure. Some wounds bleed forever.

The pain is too much, and often families try to bury the pain by either working obsessively for the punishment of the murderer, or, conversely, working to help them. I don’t fully understand this. But I have seen a lot of it. It’s as if victims’ families and their murderers are hanging onto opposite ends of the same rope. And they never stop yanking on one another.

This is tragic. The ever-widening circles of grief and woundedness that these crimes of violence create damage everyone who comes near them. While forgiveness helps and may even allow a grieving family member to lay down their end of that rope, it does not and can not ever completely assuage the loss. Murder has no end in this life. Based on our mortal understanding of things, it is a forever crime.

The grief-driven relationships that form between families of murder victims and their loved one’s murderer, whether they be burning hate or saintly forgiveness, are always at least partly a response to pain that cannot be borne. I do not take this pain lightly. I certainly do not approach miracles of forgiveness disrespectfully.

But they are not a reason to give light sentences to cold-blooded murderers. The emotions of those family members who are moved to vengeance are also not reasons to give life sentences to people who killed someone by accident, even if the accident included serious negligence or even violence. Murder is an intentional act committed by someone who intends to kill.

A victim-driven justice system is a capricious and unworkable thing. People who lose family members to murder will never be the same again. They will not ever be able to respond to what has happened to their loved one with impartiality. No one, including themselves, should expect this of them. That is not to say that their feelings should be ignored in criminal proceedings. But their feelings should not be the only or even the most important factor in determining sentencing. The reason I say this is because murder is not a private event. It is always a crime against the whole of society.

Murder is not a private affair. It is a crime against both humanity and society. Families who are suffering the grief of losing someone to murder can not be the ones who determine the punishment. In the confusion and irrationality of their grief, some of them would have people burned alive for what were accidents, while others of them would, as in this case, ask to have cold-blooded murderers with a history of violent abusiveness turned loose after serving less time than a bank robber.

Some crimes, especially crimes of deliberate and un-doable violence, are too serious to ever be forgiven under the law. I am not talking about God’s ability to forgive someone and clean their souls. I’m also not talking about a victim or their family members hanging up their hate and forgiving what has been done to them. I’m talking about the law. The law is a wall around human life and safety. Every time that wall is breached, we are all a little bit less safe.

The law is not about forgiveness. Contrary to what they say on the crime shows on tv, it’s not about justice, either. The law is about public safety and social stability. Criminal law is there so that we can lie down in our beds without fear that we will be murdered in our sleep.

Some crimes should require that people go to prison, and that they stay there. It is not a question of rehabilitation. It is a question of setting the bar on these crimes high enough so that everyone knows that the crime itself is absolutely forbidden. There is no statute of limitation for murder. Time never runs out on the investigation. That is because murder is set apart from other crimes, even in its investigatory stages.

These laws, which treat murder differently from other crimes from the moment it is committed, reflect our commonly held belief that human life should be above all other considerations. I would say that this includes the wishes of the victim’s families.

People who deliberately and cold-bloodedly kill other people without ameliorating circumstances such as insanity or fear for their own safety or the safety of others, should go to prison and stay there for the rest of their lives. Forgiveness is not part of the equation.

  • Maggie Goff

    You won’t be getting any brickbats from me. I agree with you. I hope everyone reads this all the way through and doesn’t jump to conclusions before doing that.
    I also highly recommend a book by Fr. Scott Hurd, “Forgiveness: A Catholic Approach”. I have read it several times already, and have it on my Kindle in my Daily Stuff section and read a few paragraphs every day as a daily reminder of how important forgiveness is.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Thank you Maggie. I’ll look for the book and read it.

  • Petro

    The Catechism and the USCCB are quite clear that, as you post, in this country, Catholics should oppose the death penalty. I have no idea how Catholics can read the very small exception provided for in the Catechism as having any relevance to the United States. The Bishops of this country agree that that exception cannot be applied to our political and social situation.

    Thankfully, there appears to be a continuing change of heart on this issue throughout the country. There are much better solutions that we can look at once we have moved past authorizing the government to kill its citizens.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Petro, I agree that there are better solutions. We cause people to reach for the death penalty by not giving them a meaningful life sentence without parole as an option. I authored that law and then supported it when another legislator authored it here in Oklahoma, for that reason.

  • Marc

    “He should live out the rest of his life and die in prison for that crime.” I respectfully disagree, and haven’t seen any argument about why this should be the case. Also notice, that countries like Germany, Spain, France etc… would not pass a life sentence for murder. Therefore the “should” in the quoted sentence seems to tell more about the current American expectations and status quo than about the truth of the claim.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Laws in any country or state are part of a complex of statutes, a sort of legal web. They also are part of the culture and society of that particular region or country. People often try to pull a law out of this or that European country (it’s usually a Western European country, at least in my experience) and recommend it as the solution for whatever we are discussing about American law. Even if they are correct in all their assumptions about this particular European law (they often aren’t) they must necessarily not add the whole circumstance of its existence and functioning to their argument. That means that these kinds of arguments always, by definition, take on an apples and oranges quality.

      • Marc

        Rebeca, I agree that every country has its particular idiosyncracy and in this sense no two countries are alike. At the same time Western society including USA and European Union countries are very much alike. I have lived in America and in Europe without much of a cultural shock, not comparable to what I would get if I were to live within native tribes in the Amazonia. I don’t think that the cultural differences between America and Europe would justify such different policies regarding time serving in prison. If if is good for American society that murders serve a life sentence, it is most likely good too for the European society. And vice-versa, if it is good for the European society that sentences for murder would be no more than 20 years then it is most likely good for the American society too.

        Unless you think that it is good for American society for murders to serve life sentences and at the same time for European society not to serve more than 20 years, then the only option to me it seems that, while the actual good for society is either one or the other, policy makers differ in what constitutes this good. And that is why do we can learn from each other. If whole countries have these much less extended sentences they would have some arguments for these, and they are, I think, worth considering.

        • Rebecca Hamilton

          I wasn’t referring to something as simple as the fact that Fox News and CNN are on airport televisions all over the Western world. There are big differences in the sizes of these countries, the form of governance, and as I said, the web of laws in which one particular statute resides. Here’s a simple for-instance. People in Oklahoma often say that we should do away with our state income tax because Texas does not have an income tax and it works for them. What they leave out of their consideration is that Texas makes up for the lost revenue from income tax with a much higher property tax. That’s what I mean when I say that there is a web of laws which support a particular statute. Just because another country has a particular statute, it does not mean that that statute would work the same if you picked it up and moved it here. Also, as I said earlier, from what I’ve seen (and I’m not referring to you particularly, but all these types of arguments) people who advocate for a change in the laws in the US because another country “does it” often don’t have the whole story on what it is exactly that the other country “does.”

          Just because some country somewhere may have a statute doing or not doing something is not an argument of any sort for a lawmaker here to jump up and say, oh, let’s do it too. It takes a bit more than that to persuade any but the most frivolous office-holders.

  • neenergyobserver

    I disagree on the death penalty but, in truth not all that strongly, having more to do with how many end up paroled. Other than that I completely agree with both your conclusions and your reasoning. And you state it very well. Justice, to be justice, has to be objective, not based on feelings.

  • Karyl

    For some reason the hearts of so many, including Judges, have been desensitized to wong doing (sin). In the Bible, God did establish cities of refuge for those charges that would be manslaughter or accidental. That makes sense. But cold-blooded murder, no city of refuge for them. If a state chooses life imprisonment without any chance of parote, that is that state’s business. If they can prove the murder without any shadow of doubt whatever, then I think capital punishment is in order. If there is any doubt, then life imprisonment with chance of appeal is certainly in order. You make very valid points here. Keep on keeping on, Gimpy and all! I do hope that Gimpy is finally getting a bit more helpful to you.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Gimpy is slowly getting better. Thank you for asking.

      Your points in this comment are, as usual, thought provoking and interesting Karyl.

  • Bob Goodnough

    I believe your thoughts are right on. Christian faith will move us to forgive our enemies, not to find excuses for what they have done. There is a very real difference. Christian faith will move us to seek humane treatment for those in prison, not to seek to have dangerous criminals released where they will have opportunity to repeat their offenses.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      I agree Bob.

  • Sus

    While there is nothing wrong with victims and/or their families meeting with the perpetrator, I’d have a hard time letting them decide the punishment. That should be left up to the laws. I’d be afraid of manipulation if it were up to the victims. Why put the onus on the victims?

    It’s disgusting that people have been executed when they are innocent of a crime. I don’t trust the people in power to use it fairly.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      I agree Sus.
      “It’s disgusting that people have been executed when they are innocent of a crime. I don’t trust the people in power to use it fairly.”

  • Manny

    This was right on rebecca! It is not up to the victum to decide what justice is. That is either personal revenge or personal reconciliation, but it is not justice. Justice is a societal process in which legislators as representative of the people codify the rules pertaining to the legal process and distributing penalties. You are right, it has nothing to do with the people violated. If the judge is allowed to have some flexibility in sentencing, then I don’t see the harm in asking for the victum’s opinion. But it’s the judge’s call in the end, not the victum.

    I do support the death penalty. Many Catholics do. There are some crimes that require it to approximate justice.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Thanks Manny.

  • Stacy Trasancos

    “They want something they can never have, which is satisfaction, and closure. The closure myth, the healing nonsense we spout after public tragedies feeds this mythology of “going on” as if nothing had happened. In truth, while they may appear to go on, and in fact may do that, they will never completely heal and they will never, this side of the grave, find closure. Some wounds bleed forever.”

    Very well said. Thank you.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Thank you Stacy.

  • George Vogt

    Another great post! “Murder is not a private affair.” Right! It affects all of us, just as all SIN affects the entire Body of Christ.

  • http://www, Jennifer

    That gives me the creeps too. Such details shouldn’t be “hammered out” as if trying to sell a used car. There’s a reason there is a range of penalties. The law should be the law. I have a bit of a different view on the death penalty. That’s due to having a best friend who was likely murdered. Thanks to the “Barney Fife” police force where she lived they completely botched the investigation. The Coroner even said the autopsy revealed indicators of suffocation. Anyway, I’m tired of seeing repeat offenders in the headlines time and time again. I wouldn’t be opposed to doing away with the death penalty for the reasons you cited but only with the assurance of absolutely NO chance of parole. A shot gun to the face is beyond heinous. I have no words for that. No one who does that to another human being deserves even a chance of parole -ever.

  • Marc

    What does it mean to love your enemies in this circumstances? What does it mean to forgive? How does the justice of God looks like? When we were sinners Jesus came to save us and we didn’t deserve it. If the mercy of God is to be something more than a warm feeling, sometimes it means that the punishment that we deserve is removed from us, specially if we have repented.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Marc, I don’t view it as punishment or revenge or anything like that. I write and vote for criminal statutes because I feel they are necessary to provide for the public safety. Some people should never be allowed to roam free. Keeping them locked up is necessary to protect the public.

      • Marc

        Rebecca, if murderers are in prison not as a matter of punishment but as a matter of public safety, then if the cause of endangering public safety disappear there is no longer a reason for imprisonment. In this case, if after a few years (say three) it could be proved that the character of a prisoner underwent such a change that he is no longer a danger to society, this prisoner should immediately set free. I doubt that this is what you advocate for but it seems to me the logical conclusion.

        • Rebecca Hamilton

          Such a thing can not be proved Marc. Plus, the gravity of the crime of murder would not have changed, either.

  • SteveP

    Rebecca Hamilton: I agree with your conclusions. I do not think the situation would be a good basis for modifying policy. I think, however, that God called those involved back into grace and they heeded that call.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      I agree.

  • Rev. Katherine Marple

    EXCELLENT, as usual. And thank you…this article has broken thru a short bit of writer’s block. I will link it back to you, of course. You inspire me.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Thank you Rev Katherine. You made my day.

  • Theresa

    It kind of makes you wonder how much the parents were hoping leniency with the murderer would absolve them of any guilt they felt. You’ve pegged it- a victim-driven system leads to both extremes; the death penalty (which doesn’t bring anybody back) and very reduced sentencing (that might mean somebody else’s little girl meets with the same fate). I think forgiveness is a great thing- it usually frees the person who is angry the most. But you know, we’re forgiven at the cross and there is still purgatory. It’s sometimes still mercy to have a punishment fit the crime (as opposed to a punishment that fits the emotions of the victims).

    Hope Gimpy is doing well! :)

  • Jeanne Schmelzer

    That was an excellent treatise on the law and the consequences. I learned a lot and it gave me a lot of clarity especially where emotions fit into the picture. You are so right.