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.