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Saturday, December 14, 2019

10-06 Record

Group offers hope for families of murder victims
By: Vicki Greene

    Kristi Smith grew up without her father in her life and, since his murder, has been denied his presence in her future.  Yet, as she sought healing, she found forgiveness and a way to live her life as her father lived his – peacefully.
    Smith, south central director of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation in Kansas, spoke to a group of students, faculty and community members Monday at a morning session of Lenoir-Rhyne College and an evening session at St. Andrews Lutheran Church.
    She came as part of Journey of Hope, a nonprofit organization led by murder victim’s family members, currently crossing North Carolina and sharing their stories.  Journey of Hope was presented by in Hickory People of Faith Against the Death Penalty and Amnesty International.
    Smith, who lives in Kechi, Kansas, credited her faith for making forgiveness possible.
    She found her father, Jim Edwards, in Kansas when she was 18 years old and spent about eight months getting to know him, playing cards and going rafting.  They were looking forward to their first Christmas together when one December evening, three men who had just robbed a pharmacy shot Edwards three times in the chest.
    “They ran around the corner near my dad’s house and onto his neighbor’s yard,” Smith said.  “My dad saw them firing shots at his neighbor and followed them to a grocery store and got out of his car.  He wouldn’t have thought they would have shot him, and if he did, he was willing to risk his life for his neighbor.”
    Edwards died soon after arriving at the hospital.
    Smith said she was numb at first.  She read the audience a college essay she wrote on the death penalty shortly after Edwards’ death.  In it, she admitted momentarily wanting to harm those who had killed her dad.  However, by the end of the essay, she wrote the death penalty was not the answer.
    “I guess I was living, but I wasn’t really,” she said.  “I was just moving, doing the things you do during the day.  When I found this essay, I was ashamed.  I don’t remember feeling angry enough to harm someone, but obviously I did.
    “Growing up, I had learned to separate the sin from the sinner, and I forgave them early on.  I never really hated them,” Smith said.
    The three men involved in Edwards’ death received life sentences in Kansas, which did not have a death penalty at the time.  Smith dealt with her fear and had nightmares, and attended one of the men’s parole hearings 15 years later to request he stay in prison.
    “I had to get rid of the fear,” Smith said.  “I asked myself, ‘How would Dad do it?’  He would look it in the face.  I felt an urging from God to forgive them face to face.  It was my Christian duty.”
    She met with another man involved in her father’s death, Billy Lemons, in prison several times with her pastor and her family.
    “I thought I went (to meet Lemons) because of fear, that I had the forgiveness down,” Smith said.  “But I was totally wrong.  We both had this experience that a huge heaviness had been lifted.  I could finally take long, deep breaths.”
    Over the years and many tears, the two formed a friendship, and Smith was there when Lemons was released on parole after 19 years in prison.  She invited one television crew to be there as well, because she said the media’s portrayal of victims’ families “bound up with anger doesn’t represent me at all.”
    Since that time, the two have even spoken together at engagements, sharing both sides of the tragic tale.
    Smith says there are several reasons she travels from town to town, sharing her story and encouraging people to think about the facts behind the death penalty.  She does it for her father, who was opposed to the death penalty, and for her own children.
    “I want to show people hope, and I can’t imagine Jesus walking up and pushing a button and ending someone’s life,” Smith said.  She went on to say that if Jesus could forgive her, she could forgive others.
    As the audience members asked her questions, Smith said she would like to see a more restorative justice system, including increased rehabilitation and juvenile crime prevention programs.  She also suggested that more practical punishments, including even financial restitution, could be a way to hold the criminals responsible.
    “I believe there is good in everybody, and I do believe in responsibility.  There are consequences, there has to be, otherwise how would we learn right from wrong?” Smith said.
    Some audience members expressed how moved they were by Smith’s story.  “Kristi’s message is so powerful,” said Ted Frazier, with the Charlotte Coalition for a Moratorium Now.  “The change starts here in this room.”
    “Kristi (came here) to help explain the mystery of how the human heart and human mind can come to terms with the murder of a loved one without demanding the death penalty.  There are no words,” said Rebecca Inglefield with the Hickory PFADP.