A door opens at a county prison

I learned last Thursday afternoon that the federal facilities where I minister would be in lockdown through the weekend. Apparently there was some violence. I also suspect that the one-year anniversary for the murder of a correctional officer might also have had something to do with the prison closing. In any event, I was unable to enter the minimum security facility on Friday for the Forgiveness Project or both facilities today for the Protestant services.

This meant I could give a bit more time to preparing for the first session in a Forgiveness Project I am beginning at the Pike County Correctional Facility in Lords Valley. When I first approached a counselor at PCCF about offering my services there, the discussion centered around money management classes. But when she learned of my work at Canaan with the Forgiveness Project, we both felt this would be good for the men at PCCF.

Twenty-two men were waiting for me in their cellblock at 1:30pm on Friday. I sat at one of the steel picnic-style tables, introduced myself and began to talk about why forgiveness matters. I welcomed questions, probed their answers to mine and showed a clip from a video about how forgiveness has entered the vocabulary of nations torn by war, violence, racism and genocide. The hour ended too quickly. But it was a good start.

The difficult but important work of forgiveness

A big part of the Canaan Forgiveness Project sessions are the interviews inmates conduct with each other. They ask each other questions about how they responded to people who did them wrong. Questions deal with the what, where, when, who and how; but also with feelings, responses and long-term fallout.

Today, P.C. agreed to be interviewed; D.H. was the interviewer. When he agreed two weeks ago to be interviewed today, P.C. said that he would not talk about his most painful hurt, something having to do with the death of someone he loved. That one, he has said, is unforgivable.

Instead, P.C. described a pool hall fight with a man he called a bully that eventually escalated into gunshots. Some days later it resumed with P.C. being threatened by the same man, this time holding a sawed off shotgun, which resulted in P.C. being arrested and prosecuted, while the man who threatened him suffered no consequences. P.C. said the cost of his defense, acquittal and the subsequent court costs and fines was thousands of dollars. He spoke of his anger and hatred toward the man. He also described the stress he endured over the ensuing eight years when even the sight of the man brought back  bitter memories and  fear that if they got too close, one of them would likely die.

Eventually, P.C. said, the dreaded moment arrived when the two of them found themselves alone and together with no easy way to escape. Instead of a violent confrontation, his enemy apologized and extended his hand. Here, it is worth quoting P.C. “I still do not know how it happened, for I had no good feelings toward this man. But suddenly my hand grabbed his hand.”

“Was it forgiveness?” another inmate asked. P.C. said that he does not think so. But, he added, there was a sense of peace. In fact, he felt so much better that he has since often wondered why he was willing to endure eight years of frequent torment every time he saw the man or something triggered the memory of what happened. “I would be playing with my kids,” he said, “and then see the guy driving by. And I would instantly lose all enthusiasm for being with my children. The anger would come back and I would become anything but a loving father.”

Another inmate asked, “Well, have you forgiven this guy?” P.C. said that he thought he had. I then asked P.C. if he had forgiven himself for his role in the initial act of violence that got him into trouble. P.C. was indignant and told me plainly that he resented the question. “None of it was my fault,” he insisted. “This other guy was the one who did me wrong.”

“But you responded to his aggression by fighting rather than talking him down or walking away.” P.C. defended his actions, insisting that he would have lost face with his friends if he had not met aggression with aggression. “Perhaps so,” I said, “but by participating in the escalation you ultimately ended up in court, spent thousands of dollars you did not have defending yourself, and then endured eight years of periodic torment every time you saw this guy and thought about him. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that you suffered a great deal because you chose not to walk away from a fight. That’s why I asked if you had forgiven yourself.”

P.C. looked at me for several long seconds before saying, “No one has ever helped me look at things the way you just did. I have a long way to go with this forgiveness stuff. It’s hard.”

Yes it is. But oh so important.


Guilt and innocence

In a memorable scene from the film “The Shawshank Redemption,” Red explains to Andy that every inmate at Shawshank is innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. Such assertions,usually with minor caveats, are more common than one might think: “I did not commit the crime they prosecuted me for. I did break the law at other times, but I did not do what they sent me to prison for.” Or this: “I did not deliberately break any law. I made some wrong choices, took some bad advice. But I did not set out to commit a crime.”

A prison sentence, regardless of the length, brings awful consequences to the life of the convicted and his family. I understand why a man in prison wants to diminish or deny his guilt. It is surely a defensive mechanism that somehow enables one to cling to some hope that a perceived injustice will some day be righted and an especially lengthy prison sentence will be ended on successful appeal.

Still, I am often distressed at the patterns of denial I observe among the men to whom I minister at Canaan. To believe many of them one has to believe that the entire criminal justice system mostly gets it wrong or, worse, is completely corrupt. For me that is a bridge too far. Yes, sometimes the system does get it wrong. Yes, sometimes there is racial bias. Yes, more often than not, the sentences for non-violent offenses are too long. But at the end of the day, most men in prison broke the law. Owning up to that fact without caveats and self-justification, for many, is difficult.

But I am beginning to discover that honesty can emerge when the setting is safe. In one of the recent Forgiveness Project sessions, I turned the class over to the participants, allowing them to interview one of their number about a time when someone did him wrong and how he responded to it. I provided basic questions, but the class participants asked many additional questions. In addition, they offered a number of insightful observations about the interviewee’s decisions and judgments before, during and after the incident. I was struck by the honesty that emerged, as well as the empathy expressed be all the interviewers. No one criticized or judged. The mood was of a group of men who have all made bad decisions and suffered the consequences, including a prison sentence.

What really encouraged me was the way several participants honestly acknowledged some of the mistakes that derailed their lives and listened as others sought to help them redirect their thinking toward a more hopeful future. I am sure that I could never have succeeded in producing such honesty if I had conducted the interview.

Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013

Nelson Mandela, friend and practitioner of the art of forgiving, died today at the age of 95.

In 1990 Mandela emerged from prison after serving almost three decades of a life sentence to lay the groundwork for the first multiracial democracy in South Africa’s history. Elected as President in 1994, Mandela guided the nation out of the dark night of apartheid’s brutal and racist reign by the moral power of a heart committed to truth, forgiveness and reconciliation.

Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s current President, announced the news in the middle of the night — late afternoon in Pennsylvania. He said, “our nation has lost its greatest son; our people have lost a father.”

With Mandela’s strong support, the South African national legislature passed the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act in 1995, which established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to help the nation deal with what happened during the apartheid regime. The TRC held public meetings throughout the nation, allowing victims and perpetrators alike the opportunity to tell the truth about what happened. Many blacks told gut wrenching stories of the violence visited on their families and communities. Very few whites confessed to their role in perpetrating the violence. The TRC had the power to grant amnesty to perpetrators of violence, both black and white. The conditions were strict; more blacks than whites were granted amnesty for their crimes during the years of apartheid.

The TRC made a critically important contribution to South Africa’s remarkably peaceful emergence from apartheid and the establishment of a multiracial democracy. As one of the first national efforts at restorative justice, the TRC became a model for other nations’ attempts to emerge from times of ethnic violence.

In our time, Nelson Mandela has been one of justice’s greatest advocates. So, too, will his name rightly be linked to the word “forgiveness.” It was, for him, more than an idea that had merit for individuals. He saw its power to save and shape a nation. The reality of forgiveness in Nelson Mandela seems, to me, to be forever captured in his brilliant and engaging smile. More even than his words, Mandela’s broad and genuine smile speaks to the life-changing power of forgiveness.



The Forgiveness Project’s first amazing week

This past Tuesday and Friday I met with inmates at both prison facilities for the first sessions in the Canaan Forgiveness Project. I am not sure who was more excited when each session ended — the participants or me. Both were (and I’ll use a words I don’t much like) “pretty awesome.”

I followed the same format with the 14 men at the camp as I had followed three days earlier with the eight men at the penitentiary. First, we went over the ground rules. We agreed to listen to each other carefully, to refrain from preaching, to maintain confidentiality, to disagree without being disagreeable, to refrain from judging each other — the kinds of small group considerations that will help make this a more positive experience for everyone.

Next, everyone shared their hoped-for outcomes from participating in the Canaan Forgiveness Project. Following this, I put myself in the hot seat and allowed the entire group to interview me about a time in my life when someone had wronged me. I provided basic interview questions about what happened, how I felt about it, what I did about it and whether I had been able to forgive the person who hurt me.

If ever there was a pent-up need among these men (all of whom have taken my six-week class on forgiveness) to see if I could really practice what I preach, it spilled out like a broken water main. I have probably never been subjected to such close questioning about my judgment, my decisions, my attitudes, my feelings and my actions as in the interviews, both at the penitentiary and at the camp. Almost everyone got involved.

One participant suggested I was totally responsible for what had happened. Another said I was only partially responsible. Still another said it did not matter who was responsible; what mattered was whether or not I had forgiven the person who wronged me. Some of the insights offered were worthy of a trained psychologist.

As I listened and responded to their questions and insights, it was clear that my willingness to offer myself to their questions and scrutiny allowed them to use me as a mirror for their own experiences of bad judgment, mistakes, hurt and resentment. I felt at one point that it was cathartic for them to turn the screws on me for getting into a situation wherein I felt wronged so that they could avoid, at least for the moment, having to do it to themselves for their own complicity in something similar.

When it was over, I warmly thanked them for their profound insights and searching questions. I told them this had really been of value to me. And I invited them to consider, in a future session, allowing themselves to be interviewed along a similar line. I wrapped it up by saying something like this:

“You have all correctly identified my error of judgment and bad decision in allowing myself to get into a situation that opened the door for someone to wrong me. You have also perceptively described what I should have done to avoid the damage that was ultimately done. The fact is, however, that all of us make errors in judgment and bad decisions that, later, we come to regret. But we cannot rewrite history. The only two things we can do are, first, deal redemptively with the wounds that come from our mistakes and, secondly, learn from them so as not to repeat them. Forgiveness is an essential tool in dealing redemptively with the past — forgiving ourselves for the stupid or malicious things we have done and forgiving others for the stupid or malicious things they have done to us.”

Every head knowingly nodded. As we broke up, I received several warm and firm handshakes that seemed to say, “We’re all in this together.”

I shall be interested to see who takes the hot seat next time and what collective wisdom — and hopefully, grace — comes forth from each group.

The Canaan Forgiveness Project

After teaching “classes” on forgiveness at Canaan’s penitentiary and camp for more than two years, we have decided to take the next step — starting the Canaan Forgiveness Project.

Feedback from inmates who have taken the class — in some cases twice — convinces us that some have a need for ongoing work in the task of forgiveness. The Canaan Forgiveness Project will offer men who have completed the classes the opportunity to go deeper in applying the balm of forgiveness to themselves and others.

Of those who took the classes most recently, about half the men in each class eagerly signed up to be part of the Canaan Forgiveness Project. At the camp I opened it to those still at the facility who took the classes previously. Another ten wanted their names added to the list.

So on Tuesday November 19, ten inmates at the penitentiary will meet with me in the early afternoon for an hour and a half to continue the project of forgiving. Three days later, 20 inmates at the camp will do the same. Each group will meet every other week for six months.

I ask those who follow this blog to pray for this project and the men who have joined it.

Forgiveness and Healing

When I teach on forgiveness at the two prison facilities that are part of USP Canaan, I spend some time in the first class talking about how forgiveness has escaped its confinement in the stain-glassed settings of houses of worship and begun to invade the psychology departments of major universities. I tell my inmate-students that in the past 20 years, forgiveness has been the subject of hundreds of academic studies and that researchers find strong links between forgiving and health. I tell those who take my classes that they can experience positive benefits from forgiving the people who have hurt them in some way and that they don’t have to be religious to do it.

I receive skeptical looks from some and knowing nods from others. As long as those with the knowing nods refrain from preaching and insisting that one cannot forgive without appealing to God for help, they are invariably able to be as effective as I am in helping the skeptics to give forgiveness a chance. [Disclaimer: I am not opposed to appealing to God for help in forgiving. However, many people with no faith convictions have successfully forgiven those who have hurt them].

Weeks after teaching the series at the minimum security camp, an inmate approached me during “main line” in the dining hall and excitedly told me that, as a result of my class, he was finally able to forgive his brothers. I asked him how many brothers he had. “Six,” he replied. “So how is that working out for you?” I asked. He said he had never been happier.

The academic researchers would confirm happiness as one of the benefits of forgiving. They would also add lower stress, greater optimism, less depression, less anger and less hate to the list. Some studies have found that people who forgive get sick less than people who do not.

A few weekends ago I participated in a workshop on forgiveness hosted by First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem. Dr. Michael Barry, Director of Pastoral Care at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Philadelphia, was the keynote speaker. With my trusty laptop in front of me, I wrote down some of the things Dr. Barry said. These are fairly direct quotes:

  • The number 1 side effect of unforgiveness is substance abuse.
  • The number 2 side effect is fatigue.
  • Hatred and unforgiveness will eat you up.
  • Unforgiveness is a cocktail of negative emotions — blame, anger, hatred, revenge.
  • Unforgiveness creates a state of chronic anxiety and, as a result, predictable things will take place. The stress hormone, cortisol, affects your immune system, diminishing the immune system’s natural killer cells.

Dr. Barry gave each workshop participant a copy of The Forgiveness Project, a book with the intriguing subtitle, The Startling Discovery of How to Overcome Cancer, Find Health, and Achieve Peace. (Published by Kregel Publications in 2011)In the introduction Dr. Barry writes, “A premise of this book is that moral illness often results in our repressing hatred and anger to the point that they breed a wide array of illnesses, both physical and social.”

Dr. Barry and his colleagues at Cancer Treatment Centers of America are contributing to the ongoing academic research into the healing benefits of forgiveness. I have no doubt that they will add to the now-compelling body of scientific evidence that forgiveness is a healing thing to do. And, in the meantime, Dr. Barry continues to invest countless hours showing hurting cancer patients how to forgive.

Is forgiveness a bridge too far?

The inmate’s name is Chris. He and twelve other men joined me today in the small chapel at the prison camp for the fifth class in the series of six I regularly teach on forgiveness. I had decided to lay today’s printed outline aside and invite some feedback and interaction on the themes and ideas we have considered thus far. Chris was ready to talk.

Or perhaps I should say, “ready to take aim.” Squarely in his sights was the entire criminal justice system — the prosecutors, the judges, the laws, the prisons, the guards. I kept waiting for him to include me too. He didn’t, but maybe he saved that until after the class.
After laying out his case, which covered the criminal justice waterfront as thoroughly as I’ve ever heard an inmate do so, Chris asked if I expected him to forgive all those who had anything to do with his case or his incarceration. Before I could begin a response, he reminded me that when I wake up in the morning, after sleeping in my comfortable bed beside my wife, he is waking up in a steel cot with a hard mattress, separated from his wife and family. Getting a second wind, he continued on for another few minutes, talking about productive years lost to prison confinement, lost income, damaged relationships and more.
Satisfied with his indictment of the system and his persuasive case against forgiveness, he finally paused for my response.
I agreed that under the terms he had just described, forgiveness would not be an easy task. I reminded him that I had not come to Canaan to argue that forgiveness was or should be easy. Or that anyone must forgive those who have wronged or injured them. I told Chris that I’d observed the system enough to know that it is flawed and that I knew men and women who worked in the system who could see that as well. I told him that I have grown close to men serving life sentences at the penitentiary whom I believed the system had failed.
And then I told Chris that in the midst of living in such a flawed and fallen world, we each had the ability to choose how long we would allow the poison of anger and bitterness to control our thinking and affect our health. When we have had enough of that, I said, we can choose to begin a journey of forgiveness and redirect our thinking toward fruitful ends. We all know when the time to forgive is right.
I continued by drawing on several points I had made in previous lessons. Forgiving, I said, does not mean that we now say that the wrong done to us does not matter, or that injustice must now be redefined as justice. Forgiving does not mean that we excuse or justify the behavior of someone who has wronged us. We forgive, I said, when we are weary of the anger and bitterness, realize that getting even is not the answer and desire to move on in peace.
Other hands were already up and more opinions and questions were waiting in the wings. All of it was real, some of it was raw. I heard each expression with my heart as well as my head. The time passed quickly before I turned to the final part of the lesson, a 30-minute segment from the video “Long Night’s Journey into Day,” which explores the work of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
We watched a segment about the Guguletu 7 — seven young men who were murdered by South African security forces in 1986. Their mothers came before the TRC to confront two of the men who were seeking amnesty for their involvement in the murders. One of the men met privately with the mothers to ask their forgiveness.
We all watched in silence, me praying that the courage of some of those mothers to forgive would be an encouragement to the men at Canaan to take a similar path.

Forgiveness: Stories of our time

Last night I watched the film, “Forgiveness: Stories of Our Time.” Johanna Lund directed and produced this one-hour documentary in 2007. The stories are of three women and a man, each of whom lost a loved one to murderous violence, and of how each journeyed to resolve their pain through forgiveness.

Toronto resident Lesley Parrott’s 11-year old daughter was stalked, raped and murdered by a man who, when eventually caught ten years later, showed no remorse whatsoever.  When her daughter’s body was discovered two days after she disappeared, people began calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty. Ms. Parrott replied, “I didn’t believe in the death penalty last week, and I don’t believe in it now.” Of the murderer, she said, “He is a sick man and should not be loose in society. He needs forgiveness for himself so he can move forward.” Speaking more broadly, Ms. Parrott said, “Unless we are able to let go, it defines our lives.”

Anne Marie Hagan’s father was murdered by their next-door neighbor in a small village in Newfoundland, a young man who loved him as a father and who, in turn, received a father’s love. At trial the young man, who at the time was an undiagnosed schizophrenic, was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Anne Marie Hagan had witnessed the murder, accomplished with an axe, and was herself also attacked. She ultimately found freedom in forgiving the neighbor (but not before she purchased and demolished the family home as a way of removing an obstacle to her journey to peace).

Alan McBride grew up Protestant in Belfast, Northern Ireland, throwing stones and insults at Catholics for reasons he did not even understand. He married young and had a young child; life looked promising. But a car bomb set off by the IRA in front of a fish market owned by his father-in-law killed his wife and eight others. Soon afterwards the Good Friday Peace Accords mostly ended the violence between Protestant Loyalists and Catholic Republicans in Northern Ireland. Mr. McBride, seeking closure, wrote Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein, who said he was sorry that his wife had been killed, but also justified the violence as somehow necessary for the cause. Mr. McBride had already immersed himself in the work of a group made up of Catholics and Protestants who were working for nonviolence and reconciliation. He said that if forgiveness means letting go, then he had forgiven. But he also added that he was not sure he could say that he had forgiven the IRA member who set off the bomb that killed his wife.

Reverend Julie Nicholson’s daughter was killed on the London Underground in the terrorist bombing of 2004. The tragic loss gave her pause about applying her own preaching on forgiveness to her particular situation. She was not sure that forgiving those who bombed the subway train and killed her daughter was the right thing to do. Nevertheless, she was able to find peace in giving up her desire for revenge. But she did leave her pastoral ministry amid newspaper headlines about the vicar who could not forgive.

Four awful stories about violence and the pain it inflicts on the immediate victims and their families. Four compelling stories about an outrageous path forward–forgiveness. The DVD is available through Netflix.

“Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice”

This is the headline of an extraordinary article published in last weekend’s New York Times magazine. In it, freelance writer Paul Tullis explores the question of how a restorative approach to criminal justice might work in a case of murder. It is a gripping story centered around the 2010 slaying of Ann Margaret Grosmaire by her boyfriend, Conor McBride, in Tallahassee, Florida. Let me summarize it:

Conor and Ann had dated for several years and were both 19 years old. In the day and a half leading up to the shooting, they had  been quarreling non-stop. The frustration and anger escalated. Finally, Ann gathered her stuff and walked out of the house. Conor followed and she told him she wanted him to die. He returned to the house, loaded his father’s shotgun and placed the barrel under his chin with his finger on the trigger. Ann returned and began pounding on the door. Almost immediately they were hurling their anger at each other once again. She said she wanted to die. He left the room, got the shotgun, returned and found her on her knees. He screamed at her and pulled the trigger as she held up her hands and cried, “No, don’t!”

An hour later, Conor turned himself in at the police station. That night in the hospital, Ann’s father, Andy, stood praying by her bedside. She was on life support and he knew that nothing short of a miracle could bring her back. A practicing Catholic, he was praying and listening “for that first word that may come out” of his daughter’s mouth. He felt her say, “forgive him.” Out loud, he responded, “No way.  It’s impossible.” But as he stood in the room he continued to hear his daughter’s voice: “Forgive him. Forgive him.”

Conor’s parents were away on vacation when the police finally reached them. Conor’s father, Michael, rushed to the hospital even before trying to see his son, who was in jail. When the two fathers faced each other, they embraced. Ann’s father remembered saying, “Thank you for being here, but I might hate you by the end of the week.” But he also knew that the two families were now somehow bound together on a similar jouney.

When Ann was later removed from life support and died, Conor was charged with first-degree murder, which in Florida would result at least in a mandatory life sentence or, possibly, the death penalty. Just before removing her daughter from life support, Ann’s mother, Kate, visited  Conor in jail, carrying a message from Andy: “Tell him that I love him, and I forgive him.” Kate later said, “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.”

When Ann’s parents met with the district attorney, he told them that he had wide discretion to depart from the state’s mandatory sentences and could recommend as few as five years for Conor. When he said this he did not know that the Grosmaires did not want Conor to spend the rest of his life in prison for killing their daughter. What they wanted was restorative justice.

At this point, Paul Tullis describes the difference between retributive justice — punishing wrongdoers for their crimes — and restorative justice. A lengthy quote is worth including:

Most modern justice systems focus on a crime, a lawbreaker and a punishment. But a concept called “restorative justice” considers harm done and strives for agreement from all concerned — the victims, the offender and the community — on making amends. And it allows victims, who often feel shut out of the prosecutorial process, a way to be heard and participate. In this country, restorative justice takes a number of forms, but perhaps the most prominent is restorative-justice diversion. There are not many of these programs — a few exist on the margins of the justice system in communities like Baltimore, Minneapolis and Oakland, Calif. — but, according to a University of Pennsylvania study in 2007, they have been effective at reducing recidivism. Typically, a facilitator meets separately with the accused and the victim, and if both are willing to meet face to face without animosity and the offender is deemed willing and able to complete restitution, then the case shifts out of the adversarial legal system and into a parallel restorative-justice process. All parties — the offender, victim, facilitator and law enforcement — come together in a forum sometimes called a restorative-community conference. Each person speaks, one at a time and without interruption, about the crime and its effects, and the participants come to a consensus about how to repair the harm done.

Tullis continues:

The methods are mostly applied in less serious crimes, like property offenses in which the wrong can be clearly righted — stolen property returned, vandalized material replaced. The processes are designed to be flexible enough to handle violent crime like assault, but they are rarely used in those situations. And no one I spoke to had ever heard of restorative justice applied for anything as serious as murder.

Julie, Conor’s mother, began researching who might be able to help them pursue a restorative approach to justice. They found Sujatha Baliga, a former public defender, who was now the director of a restorative justice project in Oakland, California. When she heard it was a murder case, she tried to explain to Julie that restorative justice had never been tried in a murder case and that she only worked with clients on restorative justice for crimes like burglaries and robberies. “No gun charges, no homicides. No rape,” she explained. When Julie told her that the victim’s family was on board, Baliga was astonished. Within minutes she was talking to Ann’s mother. Baliga finally relented — “I just couldn’t keep saying no.”

Eventually, everyone necessary to the process, including the prosecutor, agreed to participate in a restorative-justice community conference. It was held in a small room at the jail where Conor was incarcerated. Baliga laid out the rules:

Campbell would read the charges and summarize the police and sheriff’s reports; next the Grosmaires would speak; then Conor; then the McBrides; and finally Foley [a Catholic priest], representing the community. No one was to interrupt. Baliga showed a picture of Ann, sticking out her tongue as she looks at the camera. If her parents heard anything Ann wouldn’t like, they would hold up the picture to silence the offending party. Everyone seemed to feel the weight of what was happening. “You could feel her there,” Conor told me.

Tullis describes in agonizing detail what the Grosmaires said about Ann as they tried to represent the kind of person she was and how her death had impacted them. Tullis also relates in horrifying detail Conor’s description of what led up to the moment he killed Ann. He describes the impact of Conor’s words on Ann’s parents. And, finally, Tullis reports what Conor’s father said about his deep sorrow that he owned the gun that Conor used to kill Ann.

When Baliga turns to the Grosmaires and asks what they would like to see in the way of restitution, Ann’s mother, Kate, looks at Conor and replies that he will need “to do the good works of two people because Ann is not here to do hers.” When asked by Baliga what punishment they believed Conor should receive, Kate replies that he should receive at least five years in prison but not more than 15. Ann’s father, Andy, says 10 to 15 years. Conor’s parents concur. Conor himself says that he does not think he should have a say.

The prosecutor declined to state his opinion, saying he wanted to take it under consideration. The Grosmaires were disappointed. They had hoped that a consensus decision about Conor’s sentence might emerge from the conference. Three weeks later the prosecutor offered Conor a 20-year sentence plus 10 years of probation or a 25-year sentence. Conor chose the former.

Months later, Tullis met with the Grosmaires:

The Grosmaires said they didn’t forgive Conor for his sake but for their own. “Everything I feel, I can feel because we forgave Conor,” Kate said. “Because we could forgive, people can say her name. People can think about my daughter, and they don’t have to think, Oh, the murdered girl. I think that when people can’t forgive, they’re stuck. All they can feel is the emotion surrounding that moment. I can be sad, but I don’t have to stay stuck in that moment where this awful thing happened. Because if I do, I may never come out of it. Forgiveness for me was self-preservation.”

Continuing, Tullis writes:

Still, their forgiveness affected Conor, too, and not only in the obvious way of reducing his sentence. “With the Grosmaires’ forgiveness,” he told me, “I could accept the responsibility and not be condemned.” Forgiveness doesn’t make him any less guilty, and it doesn’t absolve him of what he did, but in refusing to become Conor’s enemy, the Grosmaires deprived him of a certain kind of refuge — of feeling abandoned and hated — and placed the reckoning for the crime squarely in his hands. I spoke to Conor for six hours over three days, in a prison administrator’s office at the Liberty Correctional Institution near Tallahassee. At one point he sat with his hands and fingers open in front of him, as if he were holding something. Eyes cast downward, he said, “There are moments when you realize: I am in prison. I am in prison because I killed someone. I am in prison because I killed the girl I loved.”

Anyone wishing to read Tullis’ fine article in full can find it here.