Seeking Forgiveness for Murder
When a prisoner meets his victim’s widow, an epiphany occurs. A story of redemption through restorative justice.
By Lester L. Polk
The drab grey walls amplify the overwhelming sense of enclosure. As you sit in the foyer of the prison visiting room, you know that this day would be as far from normal as any other day you have ever experienced in your multiple decades in prison. This is the day you stop running from your wretched past.
With the mask of a tough guy, you have always prided yourself on your fearlessness. After all, you are a murderer, a man guilty of extinguishing human life and plagued with a debt that you can’t pay. But now you have an opportunity to finally see the effects of your actions and you are afraid.
“Hello,” whispers the mediator in a raspy voice tinged with a slight Midwestern accent. Dressed in a beige knee-length dress, the middle-aged woman shakes your hand and goes on to prepare you for what will transpire during this meeting. You listen carefully, until your concentration is interrupted by a myriad of concerns. “Can you do this? Do you really have the strength? Can you actually go through with this?”
Mind and heart racing, you wipe your sweaty palms across your “Prisoner” stenciled pants as the mediator reads the obligatory legal statement, “…and you hereby release the Department of Corrections of any injury or liability arising from this meeting.”
“Man, they sure are covering themselves, aren’t they?” you utter.
“Well,” she says, “this process is new. The concepts of forgiveness and understanding are foreign to the correctional system.” She loosens up. “It’s almost comedic when one considers the name, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.” She chuckles drily. Her soft, feminine voice calms your nerves but your underlying fear lingers.
The mediator is the exact opposite of you. Ms. Davenport is a petite, demure Caucasian woman. You are a six-foot-one, two-hundred fifty pound black prisoner deeply ensnared in the clutches of the criminal justice system, perpetually stamped as violent and dangerous. Ms. Davenport sees through that veneer. She sees beyond the cold, written record of your past, and views the present softer, gentler person who is reaching for help from his core. You relish in the fact that she sees you, racked by decades of guilt and shame, now aching to make amends.
From the very first meeting, Ms. Davenport has presented herself as a kind, forgiving, trustworthy human being. You have had numerous meetings with her, and feel embraced by the empathetic energy that she so generously provides. From those meetings you learn of the deep damage you wrought in the lives of your victim’s family. You see no reason to distrust her. She’s worked tirelessly to get through the governmental red tape to facilitate this rare meeting of restorative justice, which stands in stark contrast to the ever-unforgiving model of vindictive retribution and endless punishment.
This restorative process is totally foreign to your way of thinking. On the streets, you were a beast who never forgave, nor expected forgiveness. As a prisoner, you have been tucked away, all but forgotten. Your life has been relegated to four very close walls dotted with locks all about you, and not an exit light to be seen in the near future — if ever. But you have come to like your life as you have formed it. You have your daily routine. You really have no need or desire for any reminders of your crime, the greatest shame of your life. But Ms. Davenport is persistent, even a bit pushy. So you agree, and begin to mentally prepare for the meeting. While you never expected such an opportunity, your many hours of group and individual therapy have made you ready.
After the legal preambles, Ms. Davenport takes your hand. “Okay, we’re going in there now. Remember to let me know if it becomes too intense for you.”
You’ve been to the visiting room many times before, but it had always been to see someone you were friendly with. But this time you are walking straight towards the gripping fear you have been running from for the past twenty years. You are going to seek forgiveness from the person you harmed.
As you sit down, you realize that your victim’s widow, Mrs. Henderson, is standing directly in front of you. While you sit there motionless, barraged by a torrent of emotions, an unusual thing occurs. Mrs. Henderson holds out her hand, insisting that you shake it. The gesture takes you by surprise and eases your mind. You remember the attitude that she so visibly (and understandably) displayed towards you during your trial. You stand and oblige, hesitantly. It is certainly a far cry from when you first met Mrs. Henderson.
You were full of ignorance and unresolved anger when you agreed to participate in a robbery that resulted in the death of Frank Henderson, Mrs. Henderson’s husband. That delinquent you is a perversion to who you are today. Every time you think about who you should truly have been, the potential that you had and the reality of the act you committed, storm clouds rain shame upon you.
There was a time when you were one of the most promising stars in your family. There were clear (and reasonable) expectations placed on you: to earn a college degree, a military commission and raise a family. Your fate had been written in the hearts and minds of your loving family, but the seduction of an outlaw lifestyle rang volumes louder than the faint cry of a family’s love. Your failure weighs on you like an anvil. This is why when Mrs. Henderson offers her hand to you, you feel so unworthy.
You both take your seats. Ms. Davenport reminds you, “The rules I explained to you are pretty simple. We will allow each other the opportunity to speak, before interjecting or commenting.” You each nod in agreement.
Mrs. Henderson, her face serious, initiates the meeting with a request in a tone that is not angry, but affable yet firm. “Tell me, in your own words, the events that led you to be in my bedroom that horrible evening?” Her brown eyes focus expectantly into your own. You seek to avoid her gaze and look down. After a long pause, you feel at ease enough to respond.
You reluctantly begin to recount the events that extinguished one life and marred so many others.
You tell her you were involved with a group of people who were not really what you would call friends. You were from the same neighborhood but an outsider. You had heard that they were making a great deal of money from robberies. You only saw the potential money. Never did you imagine that things could go terribly wrong. When you met up with these guys, you told them you wanted in.
Mrs. Henderson holds your eyes intensely, yet she’s clearly disconnected. You can see that she does not understand, to any degree, the subculture you’re describing. Determined, you try to explain, then you move on to the events of that night and tell her that her house was chosen at random. She remains silent until you are finished then her face breaks into astonishment — and anger.
“Say that again!” she demands. “Do you mean to tell me that it was by sheer chance that my house was selected?”
With your head lowered, you affirm that was indeed the case. “We figured there was at least a thousand dollars in the house somewhere,” you add, as if that might help. You explain to Mrs. Henderson how their avid denials of having a safe fell on deaf ears, and despite your failure to find a safe, the “rule” was to never leave a robbery empty-handed.
Mrs. Henderson sits stoically. The eerie few moments seem like a lifetime. Her silence amplifies your terror and shame as they return to haunt you with a vengeance. You want to run and hide, but you feel like a fly caught in a web, unable to extract yourself. You look to Ms. Davenport. She offers a reassuring nod.
Following a long silence, you ask Mrs. Henderson, “Can I read a letter that I wrote to you as a part of my therapy? I call it ‘Victim’s Shoes.’ I wrote it as if you were writing it to me, about the trauma and devastation that my actions caused.” Mrs. Henderson agrees. You begin to read, holding the letter close to your face as a shield. You don’t feel worthy to look Mrs. Henderson in the eye.
Dear Mr. Polk,
Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Ashley Henderson. I am the widow of Frank Henderson, husband and father to our two beautiful girls. He was a successful businessman, community leader and the love of my life. That was the man who disappeared from my life. Now, I know you did not pull the trigger of the gun that killed him, but I hold you to the same judicial standards as the killer because as they say, “in for a penny, in for a pound,” and you are culpable.
I want you to understand that I am not using this opportunity to place additional guilt in your life, but you need to realize that on June 14, 1991, you stole more than my husband, four thousand dollars and the innocence of my children. You stole my life. You stole my dreams, my peace of mind, my quiet moments, my family gatherings. The list is endless.
For weeks, months, and years, I had no time to grieve because I had to bury my husband, attend to my heartbroken children and deal with your trial. When I was finally able to grieve, I just wandered around the house like a ghost in a graveyard. I haunted Frank’s closet. I opened drawers and cabinets and touched his shirts and jackets — burying my face in his clothes, breathing in his scent. Sometimes I would shut myself in our room and hold the last pictures of us together, and weep.
The pain was not mine alone. My daughters, Lisa and Deborah, lost their father. Deborah gave birth just days after her father’s death, so Frank never got a chance to see his grandchild. The child grew up without having the wisdom of a loving grandfather.
Lisa got hammered the worst of all. As you know, Frank died in her arms. The object of her love and safety bled out in front of her. Can you possibly imagine the thoughts that ran through her mind then, and the utter feelings of hopelessness that stayed with her? So much so, that she turned to drugs and troubles of all kinds trying to numb her pain.
Don’t fool yourself into thinking those forty-eight horrifying minutes are long gone. For Lisa, seeing a black man would trigger the tragedy all over again. The anger, the hate in your voice has stayed with her, as well as with me, to this day.
I was a youth activist in juvenile hall before you and your gang violently entered my life. And even after your actions, I found that work to be my life’s calling, especially after I found out that you all were teens.
I hear that you have changed your life, and you now serve the Lord God. Well, I prayed for that to happen. I am glad that your soul has received forgiveness. I, too, offer you my forgiveness. I no longer hold you in the context of our tragic meeting. I truly believe you are sorry for what you did. You have my forgiveness, and I wrote this letter to let you know that.
You lower your shield, and to your surprise, tears are streaming down Mrs. Henderson’s cheeks. As she wipes them away, she lifts her head and says, “You actually get it! I just wanted to know if you understood. That means so much to me!”
Your mind seems dim, numb, but your mouth moves on its own. “I’m so sorry. I can only express to you that since that horrifying night, I have spent my life trying to be the exact opposite of the boy who destroyed your life that shameful day.”
With nurturing kindness on her face, Mrs. Henderson says, “We all need forgiveness because we are all sinners. If there was anything I could do to earn my righteousness, then I would not need Jesus. But we all need salvation. Besides that, I would like to offer you my friendship.”
Your eyes light up like lanterns amid your tears. She continues. “I would like for us to get to know one another. I think it would be a Jesus-like ending to this tragedy. Besides, we might as well be friends now because we’ll be together in heaven for eternity. I truly believe that is what the Lord would want. In this life, misfortune happens to us, but what we do with it is the test.”
You absorb with bewilderment what Mrs. Henderson is saying. After a moment, you say, “I will indeed be your friend and I consider her friendship a gift from God.”
As the meeting continues, the heaviness you carried to it evaporates. It turns into a regular visit as you chat and learn more about one another in a new chapter to a twenty-year-old encounter. You speak of breakthroughs in therapy, and she shares the triumphs of her children. You share the insanity of the prison system, and explain what a blessing it is to be able to change from beast to human again despite what the past would dictate.
You tell her how violent and crazy the last prison you were at had been. You describe the riots, the “jackings” for canteen, and how prevalent the same mindset that caused you to run into her house is in prison. Mrs. Henderson shares stories of counter thinking as well. She tells you about family members who think meeting you is insane. She confides how an acquaintance who was accompanying her at Mass on a recent Sunday chided her for coming to meet you and even considering offering an olive branch. You laugh inside at the irony. Perhaps the acquaintance didn’t hear Jesus’s message on forgiveness, you think. As we talk back and forth, Ms. Davenport stays silent, basking in the success of the meeting.
Hours later the institution cut short visits to conduct an emergency count. As you stand to leave, you offer to shake Mrs. Henderson’s hand but she abruptly shoves it to the side and opens her arms with a smile. She stands there, insisting, until you walk into her embrace and let her envelop you. She squeezes as if you were long-lost family.
As you line up for intake into the housing unit, your fellow prisoners comment on your glow. It is evident that something special occurred because, says your neighbor, you’re beaming. So you share your wonderful experience as briefly as possible. He is amazed, as are those in earshot, because the usual experience with victims consists of sometimes hateful, always tear-filled and emotion-driven statements to the court. But your meeting was a unique, bright, warm light, the likes of which are unheard of in the dark, negative world of prison. Yet, this is your story of how one remarkable woman charmed the beast.
This is a fictionalized version of a real turning point in my life. The names were changed, but the cause, effect and setting are true.
In contrast to the standard “lock the beast in a cage” mentality, this story showcases a different ideal of a victim/offender dialogue, which in this case resulted in forgiveness and emotional freedom for both parties.
While not suitable for all cases, this process replaces the state as the victim with the real wounded party and gives victims a voice that so shamelessly has been denied them.
For offenders, truly understanding the total effects of their crimes often proves to be a stepping stone to change. This is sorely needed since approximately two-thirds of offenders will return to society. The author can be reached at CSP-LA County, H-72800 A2–206L, P.O. Box 4430, Lancaster, CA 93539–4430.