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Monday, January 20, 2020

Forgiving the unforgiven

By: Nan Cobbey
Episcopal Life
November 1994

On the day convicted killer B.K. was to be sentenced for murdering her parents, Sue Norton begged her way into the holding cells.

Left alone with “the huge man,”  who was leader of the prison’s Aryan Brotherhood, Norton stuck her hand through the bars to touch him – “my whole body was shaking” – and said “I’ve not hated anyone in my whole life and I’m not going to start now.  If you’re guilty I forgive you.”

Astonished, B.K. blurted, “I am.”

Then, telling him she wished she could give him something that would make him feel good, give him peace for the rest of his life, she “prayed for God’s love to be shown to him.”

“Lady!” With arms raised as if to protect himself, B.K. spun away from her.  Then he turned back.  “There ain’t never been nobody been nice to me before.”

Sue Norton described this scene and its aftermath – her years of correspondence with B.K., now on death row in McAlister (Okla.) State Penitentiary and his eventual conversion and faith – to parishioners of St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church last month.

The adult Sunday school class was one of the first stops on the Journey of Hope, a unique two-week educational tour that brought 30 relatives of murder victims to Georgia.

The volunteer speakers, member of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, have forgiven or are trying to forgive the killers of their family members.  All oppose the death penalty and want others to know why.  They have traveled to dozens of cities and towns across Georgia to tell how, for them, tragedy and rage were turned into healing and hope.

Norton’s story was strangely satisfying but almost unbelievable.  “Forgiving B.K. was the beginning of a healing process for me…as a result of total forgiveness; I’m excited about what God’s sent in my life.  He wiped all that hurt away.”

For some, Norton’s story was melodrama, not comprehensible.  They bluntly said so afterwards.  For other, her witness forced a rethinking of long-held approval of the death penalty. 

“To discuss such a thing in the abstract is one thing,” said parishioner Frank Wilson.  “But to see a person who is a living, breathing, walking, talking example of God’s love as manifested from one human being to another, in circumstances where the world would tell us to act entirely differently, is an awe-inspiring thing to see. It challenges me.”

Nancy See said she found Norton’s commitment to stay in touch with B.K. and fight his death penalty “tremendously inspirational.  It’s given me a whole new perspective on the death penalty.  I was probably more for it.  I am rethinking it.”

Parishioner Phil Whittier, already opposed to capital punishment, said, “Giving people a chance to repent is one of our tenets.  If we kill them they won’t have a chance to repent, at least not to us.”

St. Dunstan’s associate priest marveled at Norton’s ability to influence the man whose violence caused so much pain.  “The way in which God is using her is just phenomenal to me,” said the Rev. Margaret Harney.

“She has reached out to him at his gut level of needing to be loved and accepted despite the fact that he wounded her in the worst kind of way.  Apparently nobody…had ever done that for him.  Now, in his mid-life, he’s finally found someone who will.”

Their Stories Hurt

Journey of Hope speakers came from 15 different states hoping to convince Georgia’s citizens to abolish the death penalty.  It was their second tour.  The first, to Indiana, was last year.  With 112 on death row, Georgia is one of 37 states that have legalized capital punishment.

The mothers, husbands, children and siblings of murder victims made more than 120 presentations.  They visited schools, churches, government office and public meetings.  They marched through downtown streets, answered questions on radio and television talk shows and sometimes faced disrespect.  None were paid.  Many gave up vacations to participate.  All had to cover their own expenses.  From Oct. 1-16, they slept in campgrounds and were bused from place to place to tell their stories.  Their stories hurt.

In 1973, Marietta Jaeger’s 7-year-old daughter Susie was kidnapped, raped, tortured, strangled and dismembered.  Susie was Jaeger’s youngest child.

“Initially I ran the gamut of outraged reaction,” said Jaeger, promotion manager of the Episcopal magazine The Witness.

“I would have been happy to kill the man with my bare hands.  However, my Christian upbringing [Jaeger is Roman Catholic] and my knowledge of good psychological health taught me that forgiveness was not an option, but a mandate.  Though I struggled with a desire for revenge, I was convinced that the only healthy and holy response was to forgive.”

Now, 21 years later, Jaeger gladly shares what she’s learned.  “The families of murder victims who retain an attitude of vindictiveness are tormented, embittered people who have no peace of mind.  The quality of their lives is diminished and, in effect, they have given the offender another victim.”

Sam Shepherd was 7 when his mother was murdered and his father, Dr. Sam Shepherd, was sentenced to death for the crime.  Twelve years later his father was found innocent.  On Oct. 4, standing at the foot of the south stairs in Georgia’s Capitol, Shepherd told a press conference, “Executions are un-American…a lie, dishonest…uneconomic, un-idealistic.  Executions kill the dream. … We cannot let violence and executions kill the American dream.”

Bill Pelke’s 78-year-old grandmother, a Sunday school teacher, was killed – stabbed 33 times – in her home by four ninth-grade girls who needed money for the video arcade.  At first he thought the death penalty was just, even for 15-year-olds.

“Six months later I was sitting in my overhead crane where I work, when suddenly in my mind I pictured Paula Cooper [the girl who’d done most of the stabbing] crouched, terrified and remorseful in her jail cell.  Then I pictured my grandmother’s picture as I had seen it over and over again in the newspaper, but this time she had tears running down her face.  I knew that my grandmother wanted me to have compassion and forgiveness for Paula Cooper.  I realized that I forgave Paula because God had touched my heart.”

Since that time, Pelke and Paula have exchanged more than 200 letters and her death sentence has been commuted to 60 years.  Pelke organized the first Journey of Hope last year.

Georgia White, shot three times by a masked robber and left for dead, was able to hold his dying wife during the last moments of her life.  “I saw her face…the image is seared into my memory. … I cursed my God.”

Charged with the crime, White spent more than two years in prison before new evidence proved him innocent.  He left prison “broke, unemployed and … emotionally bankrupt.”

“I wanted [the murderer] dead.  I was caught in a vindictive mind set.  Slowly but surely I came to realize the hate was killing me and had no effect on him.  I had to find a way to let go of the hatred and start healing.”

Today, White opposes the death penalty, saying that what begins with violence “should not be memorialized by an act of vengeance.”  He and other members of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation call the death penalty “legalized murder.”

“Hate is a continuation, not an ending,” says White.  “We say to you in a simple, resounding note that not in our name will you kill.  Our hearts have bled enough.”