The Criminal Justice System, Touched by Radical Forgiveness

The Criminal Justice System, Touched by Radical Forgiveness January 6, 2013

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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