Stop what you’re doing and go and read the story from this past Sunday’s NY Times Magazine, “Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice?” Actually, check that: wait until you have 20-30 minutes and are in a place where you can absorb an emotional grand piano being dropped on you (in a good way). Paul Tullis relates the harrowing story of Conor McBride, a 19 year-old Floridian who was convicted for killing his girlfriend Ann Grosmaire in 2010, and how both of the families involved opted to pursue something called “restorative justice,” an uncommon but legally sanctioned and attorney-mediated process of confession and repentance and, theoretically, healing. Normally reserved for smaller infractions such as robberies, this was the first time that such a thing had been attempted in a murder case. (Major props to the courageous Episcopal clergywoman who suggested it).

Mary-Magdelene-Washes-Jesus-Feet-Tissot-3052-US-public-domainAs we all know too well, true forgiveness–AKA the absolute heart of the matter–is as rare as it is essential. We can want (to want) to forgive someone, we can ask for forgiveness from others (and mean it), we can pray for it, we can talk about it, we can write books about it, but good intentions and decision-making slide off forgiveness like wet hands on a greased watermelon. This isn’t to say that (horizontal) forgiveness never happens–thank God it does!–only that it is a miracle when it does (to say nothing of vertical forgiveness, i.e. forgiveness from above, which some might say is the very definition of a *Christmas* miracle). So what we have here is something miraculous.

To be clear, this is a grisly story and not for the faint of heart. But if Christ’s words in Luke 7 about the relationship between the size of the debt/transgression forgiven and the gratitude of the transgressor (and hope for those like her/him) are anything to go by, this one deserves that much more attention. You simply can’t make something like this up. In fact, it’s almost too much. Praise God:

Ann had some brainstem function, the doctors said, and although her parents, who are practicing Catholics, held out hope, it was clear to Andy [Grosmaire, Ann’s father]] that unless God did “wondrous things,” Ann would not survive her injuries. Ann’s mother, Kate, had gone home to try to get some sleep, so Andy was alone in the room, praying fervently over his daughter, “just listening,” he says, “for that first word that may come out.”

Ann’s face was covered in bandages, and she was intubated and unconscious, but Andy felt her say, “Forgive him.” His response was immediate. “No,” he said out loud. “No way. It’s impossible.” But Andy kept hearing his daughter’s voice: “Forgive him. Forgive him.”…

Four days later, Ann’s condition had not improved, and her parents decided to remove her from life support. Andy says he was in the hospital room praying when he felt a connection between his daughter and Christ; like Jesus on the cross, she had wounds on her head and hand. (Ann had instinctually reached to block the gunshot, and lost fingers.) Ann’s parents strive to model their lives on those of Jesus and St. Augustine, and forgiveness is deep in their creed. “I realized it was not just Ann asking me to forgive Conor, it was Jesus Christ,” Andy recalls. “And I hadn’t said no to him before, and I wasn’t going to start then. It was just a wave of joy, and I told Ann: ‘I will. I will.’ ” Jesus or no Jesus, he says, “what father can say no to his daughter?”

06justice1-articleLarge-v2When Conor was booked, he was told to give the names of five people who would be permitted to visit him in jail, and he put Ann’s mother Kate on the list. Conor says he doesn’t know why he did so — “I was in a state of shock” — but knowing she could visit put a burden on Kate. At first she didn’t want to see him at all, but that feeling turned to willingness and then to a need. “Before this happened, I loved Conor,” she says. “I knew that if I defined Conor by that one moment — as a murderer — I was defining my daughter as a murder victim. And I could not allow that to happen.”…

She asked her husband if he had a message for Conor. “Tell him I love him, and I forgive him,” he answered. Kate told me: “I wanted to be able to give him the same message. Conor owed us a debt he could never repay. And releasing him from that debt would release us from expecting that anything in this world could satisfy us.”…

The Grosmaires had learned about restorative justice from Allison DeFoor, an Episcopal priest who works as a chaplain in the Florida prison system (and before that worked as a sheriff, public defender, prosecutor and judge). Andy, who is studying to become a deacon, heard about DeFoor from a church friend and turned to him for guidance. When Andy told DeFoor that he wanted to help the accused, DeFoor suggested he look into restorative justice…

[Julie McBride, mother of Conor, eventually contacted Sujatha Baliga, a former public defender who is now the director of the restorative-justice project at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in Oakland]. Baliga says she thought that Julie McBride was maybe a little deluded, traumatized, as she must have been, by what her son had done. She agreed to speak with the Grosmaires only if they called her, and within minutes of hanging up with Julie, her phone rang. Kate [Grosmaire, Ann’s mother] was on the other end.

Kate told her how Conor almost immediately turned himself in, and about Michael’s coming to the hospital before going to see his son in jail. At first, Baliga says, “I had mistrust of the potential for people to be this amazing.” After a few minutes of talking with them, though, she says, “I just couldn’t keep saying no.”

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The article then goes on to detail the actual process of restorative justice, which requires all parties involved to meet together around a table–in the presence of the DA–and share every detail of what transpired. It is about as stunning a description of cruciform healing as I’ve ever read–of moving toward the pain rather than away from it, and allowing the full extent cost and horror of the act to be expressed. Truly courageous:

The Grosmaires spoke of Ann, her life and how her death affected them. “We went from when she was being born all the way up,” Andy says. He spoke of what Ann loved to do, “like acting, and the things that were important in her life. She loved kids; she was our only daughter who wanted to give us grandchildren.” She had talked of opening a wildlife refuge after college. “To me she had really grown up, and she was a woman,” Andy says. “She was ready to go out and find her place in the world. That’s the part that makes me most sad.”

Kate described nursing Ann. She told of how Ann had a “lazy eye” and wore a patch as a little girl. “We worked for her to have good vision so she could drive and do all these things when she grew up. It’s another thing that’s lost with her death: You worked so hard to send her off into the world — what was the purpose of that now?”

“She did not spare [Conor] in any way the cost of what he did,” Baliga remembers. “There were no kid gloves, none. It was really, really tough. Way tougher than anything a judge could say.”

When everyone had spoken, Baliga turned to the Grosmaires, and acknowledging their immediate loss, she asked what they would like to see happen to attempt restitution. Kate looked at Conor and with great emotion told him that he would need “to do the good works of two people because Ann is not here to do hers.”..

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From left, Conor’s parents, Julie and Michael McBride, and Ann’s parents, Kate and Andy Grosmaire, at the Grosmaires’ home in Tallahassee, Fla (photo from the NY Times)

The Grosmaires said they didn’t forgive Conor for his sake but for their own. “Everything I feel, I can feel because we forgave Conor,” Kate said. “Because we could forgive, people can say her name. People can think about my daughter, and they don’t have to think, Oh, the murdered girl. I think that when people can’t forgive, they’re stuck. All they can feel is the emotion surrounding that moment. I can be sad, but I don’t have to stay stuck in that moment where this awful thing happened. Because if I do, I may never come out of it. Forgiveness for me was self-preservation.”

Still, their forgiveness affected Conor, too, and not only in the obvious way of reducing his sentence. “With the Grosmaires’ forgiveness,” he told me, “I could accept the responsibility and not be condemned.” Forgiveness doesn’t make him any less guilty, and it doesn’t absolve him of what he did, but in refusing to become Conor’s enemy, the Grosmaires deprived him of a certain kind of refuge — of feeling abandoned and hated — and placed the reckoning for the crime squarely in his hands. I spoke to Conor for six hours over three days, in a prison administrator’s office at the Liberty Correctional Institution near Tallahassee. At one point he sat with his hands and fingers open in front of him, as if he were holding something. Eyes cast downward, he said, “There are moments when you realize: I am in prison. I am in prison because I killed someone. I am in prison because I killed the girl I loved.”

Even experiencing the deaths of other family members, [Ann’s father Andy Grosmaire] said, has given him “no context” to understand what happened to Ann. Andy doesn’t attribute Ann’s death to “God’s plan” and rolls his eyes at “God just wanted another angel” sentimentality. But not being “stuck” in anger seems to give the Grosmaires the emotional distance necessary to grapple with such questions without the gravity of their grief pulling them into a black hole. I talked a lot to Kate and Andy over several months. They don’t intellectualize what happened or repress emotions — I saw them cry and I heard them laugh — but they were always able to speak thoughtfully about Ann’s death and its aftermath.

As much as the Grosmaires say that forgiveness helped them, so, too, has the story of their forgiveness. They’ve spoken about it to church groups and prayer breakfasts around Tallahassee and plan to do more talks. The story is a signpost in the wilderness, something solid and decent they can return to while wandering in this parallel universe without their youngest daughter.

Kate Grosmaire keeps asking herself if she has really forgiven Conor. “I think about it all the time,” she said. “Is that forgiveness still there? Have I released that debt?” Even as the answer comes back yes, she says, it can’t erase her awareness of what she no longer has. “Forgiving Conor doesn’t change the fact that Ann is not with us. My daughter was shot, and she died. I walk by her empty bedroom at least twice a day.”

I am sure there are days, or at least moments, when the answer doesn’t come back in the affirmative. The days when the gift they’ve been given isn’t enough, when the Giver seems very far off and the difference between the feeling of forgiveness and the fact of forgiveness (1 Cor 1:20) is made painfully clear. Then, again, what do I know? I probably need to be forgiven for thinking, even for moment, that I understand what this mother is feeling (and that I can draw some blog-able lesson from it). I just pray I never have to find out for myself.