The Criminal Justice System, Touched by Radical Forgiveness

In today’s NYT Magazine, there’s an amazing story about forgiveness and the criminal justice system. Conor McBride shot his longtime girlfried Ann Grosmaire, and, after her death, her parents kept up their relationship with him.

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?”

When Conor was booked, he was told to give the names of five people who would be permitted to visit him in jail, and he put Ann’s mother Kate on the list. Conor says he doesn’t know why he did so — “I was in a state of shock” — but knowing she could visit put a burden on Kate. At first she didn’t want to see him at all, but that feeling turned to willingness and then to a need. “Before this happened, I loved Conor,” she says. “I knew that if I defined Conor by that one moment — as a murderer — I was defining my daughter as a murder victim. And I could not allow that to happen.”

She asked her husband if he had a message for Conor. “Tell him I love him, and I forgive him,” he answered. Kate told me: “I wanted to be able to give him the same message. Conor owed us a debt he could never repay. And releasing him from that debt would release us from expecting that anything in this world could satisfy us.”

The article goes beyond the personal feelings of the family, to talk about restorative justice – an extra-legal system that brings victims, perpetrators, and members of the community together to share their feelings and make consensus recommendations for sentencing.  Think of it as a small scale truth and reconciliation commission.  I really recommend reading the whole piece.

I was especially touched by Kate Grosmaire’s comment that forgiving Conor helped her let go of the idea that anything was going to compensate her for the loss of her daughter.  The court system is focused on justice, which can cause confusion and turmoil when true justice and peace is beyond the power of the courts to fine or imprison.  Better to admit that the civil law can help with deterence and safety, but can’t grant peace to the bereaved.

I was reminded of the New Yorker piece about a soldier seeking forgiveness from the family of a civilian he shot in Iraq, where the author noted that we lack traditions and rituals of forgiveness.  Restorative justice seems like a good start for secular society.

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  • grok87

    “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.)”

    Thanks. A very moving story and very apt for Epiphany Sunday- a father seeing Christ *revealed* in his dying/murdered daughter. For a father to forgive the murderer of his daughter seems to me a true miracle, a “thing of wonder”, as per the original meaning of miracle, something not to be easily understood or grasped.

    The detail of the epiphany story
    that always strikes me is the ending “they departed for their country by another way.” To me it speaks of the power of encounters with Christ to change the direction of our lives- we are moved off of our original road to a new unfamiliar one, there is no going back to our old ways…

    • keddaw

      “Like Christ on the cross”

      With a massive spear wound to her side and lashes on her back? Or are Christians just seeing what they want to see in times of great emotional stress? (e.g. 9/11 cross)

      • Well, a cross is a cross–I mean, it’s two pieces of material that form that shape. It’s not exactly something you can “make up”, like seeing Jesus’ face in a piece of toast. It’s not a subjective thing.
        In times of stress, people take comfort where they can get it. This seems to bother you? I have plenty of scars from medical procedures all over my body, and sometimes they are very helpful in meditating on Christ’s passion, because I have a physical standard I can use to draw me into meditation.

        • keddaw

          I don’t mean to trash a grieving father’s comfort – far from it – but I do mean to challenge the unthinking, unquestioning way other people accept that it was Christ that the connection was with. If you want to go for a Christ-on-a-cross connection you need more than hands and head, even the stigmata fakers know this.

          The cross was just stupid – people clinging to the idea that God is still there with them as they sift through the rubble of the attack and find a T-beam or cross beam virtually intact, like God was powerful enough to protect a couple of steel beams, but impotent to prevent the planes crashing into the towers or the towers collapsing. The building was virtually made of crosses, it was pretty likely that in an uncontrolled collapse there would be one or two left standing. But if helped the locals through it then good for them.

          • I don’t know if it was that “God was powerful enough to protect a couple of steel beams”. In a more recent image, during Hurricane Sandy, the Wall Street Journal ran a front page picture of a destroyed New Jersey town. In the center was a statue of Mary, untouched. It was pretty amazing.
            The father–and others–aren’t trying to prove stigmata, here. The first thing he thought of was Christ, which means he probably has a deep religious background (which the article verifies). In times of stress/trial, a lot of people’s minds go to what they believe, and what they truly know to be true. For him, it was religion. He saw Christ’s sufferings in his daughter. Redemptive suffering, or seeing human suffering as akin to Christ’s, isn’t a new idea. It might be a pretty *Catholic* idea (I don’t know many Protestants who talk about Redemptive Suffering), but it’s an old religious idea.

          • ACN

            Just to be clear, we’re now positing divine intervention for anything that survives a storm?

          • Well, no, ACN, obviously not. I was using it as an example. People who look for the divine will find it more often than those who don’t, for sure.

          • keddaw

            “People who look for the divine will find it more often than those who don’t, for sure.”
            No they won’t.

          • ACN

            What then were you using it as an example of?

            Of how confirmation bias can give us misleading impressions of how the world works?

          • Keddaw: If you are LOOKING for something, you are much more likely to see/find it. If you believe in divine intervention, signs/miracles, whatever, you’re more likely to see them.
            ACN: It’s an example of something obviously religious found in the wreckage of natural disasters, as a counterpoint to the 9/11 cross the original poster was mentioning. As for “misleading representations of how the world works,” I don’t claim to know how it works. Do you?

          • ACN

            I see.

            So if I believe in unicorns, am I more likely to see them?

            Can I ascribe the fact that I haven’t seen them to the fact that I don’t believe enough?

          • The Old Testament mentions unicorns…maybe we’re just missing them?
            (And we’ve totally fallen down a rabbit hole here. Anyway.)
            Obviously I do not equate God and miracles with unicorns and other fantastical beasts. If you do, which seems likely, I’m not sure what else there is to say.

          • I think the point being made is that the surviving statue of Mary is trivially easy to debunk as a miracle if someone is the least bit concerned about the evidence. The only way to to think it’s a miracle is to actively avoid looking for natural explinations. This doesn’t count as “seeing” the supernatural or divine, it counts as self-delusion.

            I think you and Keddaw are saying close to the same thing using different words. I expect you would both assent to the statement “People who look for the divine will be convinced they have found the divine more often than people who don’t look for the divine”

          • Yes! Jake wins the prize! 🙂

          • deiseach

            Okay, leaving aside the whole question of the stigmata and whether every stigmatic is a conscious hoaxer, an unconscious hysteric, or otherwise fake, let’s talk a little bit about the symbolism of wounds to the head and hands and identification with Christ.

            I’m not reading the father’s reaction as “My daughter exhibited the wounds of Christ”, more like “Looking at her wounds while I was praying, I thought of the example of Christ as an innocent victim and how we can unite our sufferings with the Passion, and I was enabled to forgive the assailant as Christ asks us to forgive those who injure us”, though that’s a very long-winded way of putting the almost-instinctual notion of offering it up that older Catholics and many Protestants – though they wouldn’t refer to it by the same tern – have in regards to sickness, illness or other physical distress.

            The Buddy Christ image felt off-kilter to me for some reason (apart from the whole winking and grinning thing) and it took me a bit of thinking before I realised why – it’s based on the iconography of the Sacred Heart but with some very important, though subtle (if you’re not familiar with the imagery) omissions. Buddy Christ does not have the wounds in the hands; the heart is not pierced and bleeding, crowned with thorns or burning with the fires of charity. Buddy Christ is not the suffering Christ and not the Christ of the suffering.

          • keddaw

            deiseach, that’s a very generous reading of the father’s comments. I don’t want to directly criticise his comments, but I do want to look at other people’s unthinking acceptance of them.

            The father said: “he felt a connection between his daughter and Christ; like Jesus on the cross, she had wounds on her head and hand.” There is actually strong evidence that Jesus would have been nailed through the wrist rather than hand. Jesus’ head wound is superficial and somewhat minor compared to Ann’s, or Jesus’ other wounds. Now if the meaning we are supposed to take is that Ann was suffering just as Jesus was suffering and both wanted forgiveness for the perpetrators then fine, but the next sentence should not say “(Ann had instinctually reached to block the gunshot, and lost fingers.)” So maybe the NYT magazine should be criticised for both misrepresenting the father and talking absolute bollox, but I haven’t seen any of that, all I’ve seen is “isn’t his a great story”, “how Christian” etc.

    • grok87

      I agree with deiseach’s post. Only I would probably use slightly different verbs. instead of “Looking at her wounds while I was praying, I thought of the example of Christ as an innocent victim” perhaps “Looking at her wounds while I was praying, I experienced Christ as an innocent victim”

      but I don’t really know. I’ve never been in the position of that father and “so help me God” I won’t ever be. All I can imagine is that in that kind of situation one is not really “thinking” in the normal sense of the word but “experiencing” something that goes beyond thought.

  • One of the things I like about this piece is about how forgiveness was a component of a more complex recognition of the involved people’s identities: by forgiving, we prevent ourselves from thinking only in terms of “victim” and “oppressor.” While we may not care initially about imagining the supposed oppressor complexly, certainly we can see why imagining the supposed victim as only a victim is a bad thing. (Though we still do an awful lot of this culturally and individually–or at least I do.) This is as true when I am the victim as when someone else is the victim.

    On another note, I don’t really see the criminal justice system as ever having had much to do with justice for the victims anyway; rather, as it is, the legal system tries to promote justice by preventing acts that would be unjust (the mechanisms being deterrence and removing people prone to unjust acts from arenas in which those acts could be committed). Once those acts are committed, injustice has already occurred and cannot be regained with punishment. I provisionally define justice as the movement toward a more fairly ordered society, so I think maybe my disagreement comes from a different conception of what justice is, more akin to “social justice” than “criminal justice.” Reparation does exist in civil courts, and that may be a closer approximation of justice, but generally I would like to see more work in rehabilitation, since a fuller view of justice would require that the guilty parties be successfully re-integrated into the community whenever possible, and interpersonal (rather than monetary) reparations. But these are not things that can be easily produced in our court system. You can’t legislate peacemaking, can you?

    • I don’t really see the criminal justice system as ever having had much to do with justice for the victims anyway…. I provisionally define justice as the movement toward a more fairly ordered society, so I think maybe my disagreement comes from a different conception of what justice is, more akin to “social justice” than “criminal justice.”

      Criminal justice deals with a very narrow slice of all that justice entails. The classical definition of justice is “to give to each what is his due.” The criminal justice system, as you point out, focuses almost exclusively on the punishment that is considered due to those who commit injustice. And this thin slice of justice has culturally come to dominate our ideas of what justice is, so that now we associate justice with punishment rather than with giving others what belongs to them, or is owed to them.

      I would not want to do away with a criminal justice system altogether; it is, as far as I can tell, a legitimate aspect of justice. But I would like to restore it to a small and relatively rare aspect of justice, and to expand the broader notion of justice that focuses on what I owe to others.

  • WaffleBox

    Wow, thank you for posting this.

    I worked with Andy Grosmaire for just under a year a little over a year ago (so after this all happened). I had never heard of these events prior to reading this post this morning. I always sensed what I would describe as a “heaviness of heart” in Andy, and now I completely understand why. What an incredible story.

  • I too read this piece and found it well-written, and I think the result reached in this case was ultimately acceptable to everyone. That’s what I’d like to see as this goes forward, assuming it does–that, yes, the family can grant forgiveness, but that doesn’t mean the criminal “gets off” in a sense. I think there still has to be jail time.

    • It was a confluence of things — a family capable of forgiving, a defendant who turned himself in and was willing to serve his time, lawyers and judges willing to work outside the traditional legal system. It won’t happen very often, I suspect, but it should be encouraged when it does happen. I’d love to see more jurisdictions implement restorative justice.

    • I agree the result of the individual case is acceptable to everyone, but I don’t think that is a vindication of the process.
      In this case the sentence was reduced to twenty years in prison and that feels adequate. Now I’m sorry to diss your country, but I think a large part of why it feels adequate is that American default sentences are excessive. For comparison, here in Germany twenty years is about the average length of what is officially called a life sentence. And a 19-year-old with serious signs of immaturity would probably have been sentenced as a minor, which means a nominal 10 years max, probably paroled after 7. Now I’ll admit Germany goes too far in the lenient direction. For example, even sexual murderers are released eventually, and given that we pretty much know their recidivism rates can never be reduced to the base rate I think that is evil and dumb. But on the other side there are graduations even of murder and I think one reason this feels is OK is that for this particular murder 20 years are simply enough or even on the high side. The bargaining basically averted an unnecessarily harsh default, and if the default had been set correctly I’d feel a lot more queasy about forgiveness of relatives reducing it.
      A big problem with a general penalty reduction for forgiveness would be that it would allow rich criminals to buy off the victim or their family. Now for minor offenses buying off the victim pretty much is the point of restorative justice and I’m OK with that. But those are offenses where the damage can be undone or at least mitigated. For major crimes I think it’s really important that the state is punishing on its own behalf and not on behalf of the victim. And then forgiveness of the family is surely a good thing but I don’t see why it should affect the decision of the state.

      • Default sentences vary state to state. There aren’t national standards for crimes, as far as I’m aware–each state can determine what the sentence is. So there really are no “American” default sentences–it’s what the particular state, and, more to the point, the particular judge/prosecutor decides.

      • I’ve never understood the way the American system (and perhaps others, but I’m not as familiar with punishment in other countries) seems to consider time in prison to be the appropriate punishment for nearly every crime. Prisons, when they are so broadly used, seem to be more a cause of more social problems than a solution to them. It seems to me that prisons ought to be a last resort, for criminals who are too dangerous to allow to remain in the community under any circumstances. As it is, prisons often get in the way of criminals making reparation for their crimes, and immerse them in an environment where there are few opportunities to learn virtue and many opportunities to deepen vice. Then we are surprised (shocked! shocked!) to find people turned into hardened criminals on release.

        • I suppose….but then what is a good punishment? Fines are usually used for the “tiny” things–red light running, speeding, etc. It’s a discussion I know a lot of states are having, because jails are expensive. But so far we haven’t been able to come up with anything that we can all agree on. Mental hospitals are all but nonexistent where I live, so that aas an option doesn’t exist.
          Death penalty is usually what gets used for those “last resort” criminals–the ones who do truly heinous crimes.

          • I guess I see the death penalty and prison as similar in intent: get the criminal away from the rest of society. I know there are those who have a vengeance motive, but I’ve never been able to grok it.

            Fines are useful for things that can be given a monetary value, and for criminals who have means to pay. I’ve wondered about a very robust form of community service, perhaps even military service: these at least would have the benefit of doing some productive good for society, and perhaps even of making some direct reparation for the harm done. Moreover, doing productive work has some chance of teaching virtue.

  • Maggie Goff

    Here is another very well thought out look at this, and I agree with this:

  • Niemand

    Not buying this one. I like the idea of restorative justice and apparently criminals who go through it are less likely to commit future crimes, but, in the end, there is no way for a murderer to be forgiven. His or her victim, the only person whose forgiveness really counts for anything, is dead. He or she is no longer able to forgive or withhold forgiveness.

    • Darren

      ^ Pretty much.

      [Inigo corners Count Rugen, knocks his sword aside, and slashes his cheek, giving him a scar just like Inigo’s]
      Inigo Montoya: Offer me money.
      Count Rugen: Yes!
      Inigo Montoya: Power, too, promise me that.
      [He slashes his other cheek]
      Count Rugen: All that I have and more. Please…
      Inigo Montoya: Offer me anything I ask for.
      Count Rugen: Anything you want…
      [Rugen knocks Inigo’s sword aside and lunges. But Inigo traps his arm and aims his sword at Rugen’s stomach]
      Inigo Montoya: I want my father back, you son of a bitch!
      [He runs Count Rugen through and shoves him back against the table. Rugen falls to the floor, dead]

    • Reparation is not always possible, and the victim of a murder is (as you point out) unable to offer forgiveness – at least, in this life.

      However, the parents also were harmed by the loss of their daughter. They cannot forgive as the daughter would forgive, but they can forgive him for taking their daughter away from them. They suffered a real loss, and their forgiveness is a real forgiveness.

  • nodanaonlydrool

    Interesting backstory about the mediating lawyer also. I totally understood her fear about letting her anger go, as it was such a source of motivation to strive for justice. Yet, when she received grace and the burden was lifted, she was still able to seek justice, in a different way. Perhaps in a better way.
    For the prosecutor, I admire his course of action and his ability to step away from the situation emotionally. That was his job, and I think he did it well.

  • Bobcat

    My first reaction to this is that if he hadn’t had access to a gun, Ann would still be alive.
    It’s good he turned himself in. It’s good her parents found a way to forgive him, but being able to prevent crimes like this would be much better. It doesn’t actually say where he got the gun, or if it was his gun, or whether he had to take it out of a locked storage area or not.

    I think restrorative justice sounds like a good idea, but the case is special in many ways. For one thing, the perpetrator turned himself in. Most murderers don’t do that, many of them hide their crimes. He obviously understood that what he’d done was wrong. Not all criminals will be like that. some of them are unrpentant.

  • jenesaispas

    Hi, we’ve actually started studying crime and justice in French and ‘médiation pénale’ (restorative justice type thing) came up in a text we read for homework, I thought of the article you posted and after reading it again I feel more strongly that he needed that 20 year sentence. The Pistorius case also reminds of this, I think the fact that at least some of Reeva’s family are willing to forgive him perhaps even if he did intend to kill her is amazing and enough.