A young girl was murdered. Her family heard what we were doing. (Helen was with a group involved with families of murder victims protesting the death penalty.) They were angry. They couldn’t believe that people didn’t want murderers to be executed. And so they had their signs up about caring for victims.
One lady said, “Well I’m just not there yet, I can’t forgive.” And I said, “Look I understand. Your pain is talking now and you’re a good person. You’re a good person and you loved your daughter.”
So we walked off together and what really poured out was the guy that murdered her daughter was only charged with rape, not murder, and he’s going to be out soon. And the thought was intolerable to her. And it isn’t just purely that she wants to see him punished. She doesn’t want to see him out on the streets because he has a pattern and he’ll kill again. That is a very legitimate thing which I could really stand with her in.
She began to talk about her daughter, and that she knows that her daughter would forgive him. It ended up that she really was not so much for the death of this person but that she wanted other people to be protected from him.
How Our Society Understands Crime
There’s a fundamental problem in how we understand crime and justice in our society. When someone commits a crime we ask three questions.
- What laws have they broken?
- Who did it?
- What do they deserve?
In that equation the victim is left out completely.
You have an offender who’s going to focus on trying to avoid the harsh consequences of the punishment. In fact the whole adversarial legal system teaches him to watch out for himself. Then you enter a prison environment where the whole culture is to deny what you did, and not think about the victim. So you basically have a criminal justice system which does not hold offenders accountable in any meaningful way. I don’t know how many offenders have sat and talked to me about how they denied the consequences of what they’ve done. How they never understood the consequences of what they did.
Some of the needs of the victims (families of victims) of violent crimes:
- Information about the offender, besides what they can read in the paper
- Answers from the offender to the questions that plague them about their experiences
- Involvement in the judicial process, with support and protection
- Active restitution even if it’s purely symbolic
- To be able to state their anger to the offender
- Help to start on a journey toward healing
Why I forgave my grandmother’s murderer
Paula Cooper was 15 years old when she killed my grandmother. The prosecution wanted the death penalty. The judge, although he stated he was opposed to the death penalty, said that according to the state law, he had no choice but to sentence her to death.
At that time I had no problem with Paula being sentenced to death. I felt that if they did not issue the death sentence in this case, that what they were saying to my family was that my grandmother was not an important enough person to merit the death penalty. And I felt that my grandmother was a very important person.
It was about four months after this time I was having some personal problems. I was reflecting on my life and on some of the things that hadn’t worked out very well. I began to picture someone who had a whole lot more problems than I did: Paula Cooper. I could see her slunk in a corner of her death row cell, tears running down her eyes, saying, “What have I done? What have I done?”
I began to think about my grandmother’s life and some of the things that my grandmother stood for. I became convinced that my grandmother would have been appalled by the fact that this girl was on death row, that the state of Indiana was going to take her life, and that many of grandmother’s friends and family were supporting this.
I came to a conclusion that forgiveness was the right way to go. At that time I had absolutely no love and compassion for Paula at all. My grandmother had been heinously murdered. But I was convinced that my grandmother wanted someone in our family to have love and compassion so I began to pray in tears, begging God to give me love and compassion for Paula on behalf of my grandmother.
I no longer wanted Paula to die. I began to correspond with Paula, and shared my experience of forgiveness with her. I told Paula about my grandmother and gave her some different verses in the Bible, sharing my grandmother’s faith with her.
After I asked for love and compassion for Paula, within eight months I became very concerned about the other juveniles who were on death row for crimes that they had committed. And I began to ask for love and compassion for them also.
I carried that a step farther and began to pray for love and compassion for all 2700 death row inmates throughout the United States. And that prayer basically was answered, too, where I do have a love for all these people. I believe it’s terribly wrong for the state to take their lives and it’s because I see these people as human beings.
Vengeance is not the answer. Vengeance is never the answer. Many people in our organization say that it’s a discredit to our lost loved ones to say that the life of another person would ever repay the life of the loved one we lost.
Having compassion for Paula Cooper did more for me than it did for her. Helping Paula Cooper did more for me than it did for her. That’s the way that forgiveness is.
There’s no way a murderer can make right in any significant sense what they’ve done. But they can be helped to understand the consequence of what they’ve done. They can do things in a symbolic way to move in that direction. They can answer the questions that plague victims so much. If the offender wants to express remorse they’re often not allowed to by their attorney. The victim always says, “If you just would have said you were sorry at the time.” The offender always says, “I had written a statement. I pled with my attorney. I was not allowed to do it.” There are lots of things that they can do that can help in what is really a healing journey for the victim. Our legal system basically ignores victims and the healing journey that they need to be on.