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Monday, February 17, 2020

10-13 Athens News

Daughter of murder victim lobbies against death penalty
By: Jim Phillips

    Dec. 15 will be a painful anniversary for Kristi Smith of Kechi, Kansas.  It will mark the date on which, 25 years ago, her father James Edwards was shot to death while trying to stop three rampaging criminals.
    The pain was intensified for Smith, then 18 years old.  She had just tracked down and was starting to get to know her father, who had left her mother before Smith was born.
    At the time, she admits, she wanted to kill the man who shot her dad.  But since then, she’s come to be grateful that Kansas had no death penalty at the time.  This is because if killer Glendale Rider and his two accomplices had been executed, she would never have gotten the chance to forgive them.
    As time passed after her father’s death, Smith told a group of local death-penalty opponents Thursday, “I thought about my faith.  In my faith, we’re taught that to be forgiven, you must forgive.  And so I forgave them, all three of them.  I had to.  It was my responsibility as a Christian person.”
    This attitude resulted in Smith’s paying a prison visit to one of three men involved in her father’s slaying, and testifying on his behalf when he sought parole.
    Smith visited Athens with Journey of Hope, an anti-capital punishment project currently touring Ohio.  She is a member of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, a group of relatives of murder victims who are committed to stopping state execution.
    Now married and with four daughters (and a “very, very pro-death-penalty” husband), Smith recalled her father’s death.  Rider, who had just escaped from a state mental hospital where he was under observation after having killed two men, hooked up with Billy Lemmons and Jimmy Edens, to rob a Wichita-area pharmacy.  In their flight, they trampled the yard of an elderly neighbor of James Edwards, who went after them.
    “My dad did exactly what I would have expected him to do that day,” Smith said proudly.
    Edwards followed the men a few blocks, to a point where they blocked in his vehicle and got out of their own.  Rider shot him three times in the chest.  “They were hollow point bullets, and they made hamburger of my dad’s chest,” Smith said.
    Despite the anguish of losing a father she had just found, Smith found herself compelled to forgive the three criminals, who were convicted and sent to prison.  “My society was telling me I should feel hatred and bitterness and anger, and want to hurt those people,” she said.  “Not just hurt them, but kill them.”  She came to reject, however, a nation favored by death-penalty advocates: that execution of criminals is good for victims’ families, because it provides “closure” for them.
    “I do not need closure,” she said.  “I don’t need closure because I have peace.”
    Smith recounted finally getting permission to meet with Billy Lemmons, and spending hours with him.  “He sat across from me and started talking about what they did that day,” she recalled.  “He said he could have stopped Glen from taking my dad’s life that day, but he didn’t take action.  He saw my dad as a hero.  He said, ‘All your dad was doing was protecting his neighbor’… And Billy and I sat there and cried and cried and cried.”
    Smith helped get Lemmons out of prison, though she’s not sure the other two men are ready for parole.  But by forgiving Lemmons for his role in her father’s death, she said, she helped herself heal more than she could have by seeing him executed.
    After talking with him in prison, she said, “I walked out of that room that day and I was able to breathe.  I was so free, so at peace.  It was beautiful.  If we would have had a death penalty in Kansas then, I wouldn’t have been able to experience that.”