When a mother loses her son, when he is shot and killed, it is natural to assume there is nothing but anger, hatred, and revenge in her heart. When a sister loses her dear brother, the source of joy and humor in her life, it is natural to assume she feels only ill will toward the person who took her brother from her. In my work defending people charged with murder, I have witnessed miraculous moments of forgiveness and reconciliation. I have received expressions of love and grace from these most unexpected messengers of hope.
When I litigate murder cases, I do not demonize the victim. Even when I am arguing that the victim was the first aggressor and their death was justified in self-defense, I take every opportunity to express sorrow for their loss and explain how the tragedy is bigger than any one person’s responsibility. I try to show how we are all, in some way, responsible for every extreme act of violence. It is my failure, it is your failure, and it is a failure of society. Perhaps it is because I set this tone of understanding that the families of the victim often feel comfortable reaching out to me. Perhaps it is normal for families who have lost their loved ones to reach out to the person who defended the killer. I just know that after I have finished a trial, defending a person in a murder case, I now expect to connect with the families of victims in a way that is miraculous and transformative.
Now, I have also received my share of angry bitterness from families who feel that my client’s punishment should be death. They communicate their pain in the strongest possible language. I try to cultivate an open attitude that lets them know I am receptive to whatever they need to share, as a part of their path of healing. I have no judgment, and try to cultivate only compassion. We hear about the folks crying “an eye for an eye,” and don’t hear as much about the folks crying for love and forgiveness. I increasingly believe the path of “eye for an eye” leads to a prison of hatred for both the victim and offender. The possibilities of reconciliation and forgiveness offer the only hope for liberation from the cycle of blame, and healing for the soul of victim and offender. I am continually awakened to the possibilities of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Most recently, the sister of the deceased has stayed has given me hugs, and smiles, and words of encouragement. She stays in touch with me, and calls every now and then for advice. Her mother has told me that she forgives my client for killing her son and has expressed a desire to help him when he gets out of prison. Imagine that: the mother of a victim of murder, welcoming his killer out of jail. It’s too much. But these acts of redemption by poor folks struggling to get by redefine the possibilities of reconciliation and forgiveness.
If they can do it, think of what the rest of us are capable of?