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The Ultimate Forgiveness

To Err Is Human, to Forgive Divine--to Befriend Someone Who Took the Life of a Loved One Is Another Matter. What Motivates People Whose Empathy Seems to Know No Bounds?

April 04, 2004|Vince Beiser | Vince Beiser last wrote for the magazine about maximum-security units in California's prisons.

When Douglas Mickey showed up at Eric Hanson's home outside of Auburn, Calif., on a September night in 1980, Hanson let him right in. The two men, both around 30, had been friends for several years. Mickey had previously bought pot from Hanson, who was a well-known local grower. Hanson had no idea, however, that Mickey had become gripped by a delusional paranoia. Mickey was convinced that Hanson was taking control of his mind and had to be killed. The two sat and talked for a while, and then Mickey suddenly pulled out a knife and drove it into Hanson. His screams awoke Catherine Blount, 19, Aba Gayle's daughter and a friend of Hanson who was sleeping upstairs. When she ran down to see what was going on, Mickey stabbed her several times. He fled, but was eventually arrested, tried and sentenced to death for the murders of Hanson and Blount.

Gayle recounted this story last fall in Cincinnati to a convent meeting room half-filled with retired nuns. Her lecture was part of "The Journey of Hope"--a speaking tour of murder victims' family members who are opposed to the death penalty.

The tour is not exactly a popular attraction. Over the course of the few days in which I tag along, most of the events are attended by no more than a few dozen people, generally at churches or religious schools. That doesn't bother Gayle. Despite having told her tale countless times, she delivers it to the nuns with verve.

When she learned Catherine had been murdered, Gayle tells them, she was shattered. She was a middle-class housewife, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, with two other children who had just entered medical school. She had never dealt with anything like this before. "I can tell you, I know what it's like to be temporarily insane," she says. "I was so full of rage, I actually lusted after revenge." She thought of Douglas Mickey as nothing but a "terrible monster," and intended to witness his execution. She passes around a picture of Catherine at 19--pretty, brunet, smiling--for the nuns to admire.

Gayle stayed sunk in fury and misery for years, until she eventually started reading books on world religions and spirituality. She wasn't observant--she didn't even believe in God at that point--but something in those books spoke to her pain. She was especially taken with one called "A Course in Miracles," which stresses "the healing power of forgiveness." Gayle soon found a study group that used the book as its foundation. Her beliefs began to change. "I learned one very important lesson," she tells the nuns. "That we are here to love one another." Then one day in her car, she says, she suddenly heard a voice saying: You must forgive him! And you must let him know!

"That voice was so loud and so clear it wouldn't let me sleep that night," she says. "It had me out of bed at 4 in the morning, typing a letter to the man who murdered my daughter."

In that letter, Gayle told Mickey that after the murder she had wanted to see him punished; but now, to her surprise, she found she could forgive him. "This does not mean that I think you are innocent or that you are blameless for what happened," she wrote. "What I learned is this: You are a divine child of God . . . . The Christ in me sends blessings to the Christ in you."

Within weeks, Mickey wrote her back, expressing repentance for his crime and inviting her to visit him in San Quentin. Gayle accepted. "We sat together that first visit and cried," she says. They cried for Gayle's loss, and Catherine's, and Mickey's--since, as Gayle says she realized, he too had lost his future the night Catherine died. They have stayed in close touch ever since. She has become a voice not only for Mickey but against the death penalty in general, giving talks like this around the country.

"I'd like to see him released," Gayle tells me later. "He has paid his debt to society. He's totally rehabilitated. It serves no purpose for him to be sitting on death row. It doesn't change what happened. It's a total waste of his life, and of taxpayers' money."

There doesn't seem to be any one common factor to explain why a person would befriend their loved one's killer. "Sometimes it comes at the initiation of the [victim's relative]. Sometimes it starts with the killer reaching out to family members," says Cushing, the Victims' Families group leader. "For some it comes from faith, for others, not."

Many of the befrienders say their actions were guided by their Christian beliefs, which emphasize forgiveness of even the worst sinners. After all, the story of Jesus Christ is the ultimate example of a father forgiving and continuing to love those who killed his only son.

That's how Bill Pelke sees it, anyway. Pelke is a retired steelworker who is now a full-time organizer with the Journey of Hope. He is a craggy, barrel-bodied man with a demeanor somewhere between Johnny Cash and Chris Cooper, exuding a palpable gravity and warmth tempered by deep sorrow.

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