In a small ranch house in Fresno, Calif., a group of people are eating apple pie
and ice cream at a reception for an anti-death penalty
performance that night at a local Mennonite church. The performer is
Ben Aronoff, a former San Quentin guard who befriended "freeway killer"
William Bonin, who was convicted in 1981 of murdering 14 boys and young men and executed in 1996. Aronoff turned against the death penalty and began doing one-man
shows to dramatize life on death row. Sam Sheppard will also speak about what it feels
like to be a child whose father has a capital case against him. His father, Dr.
Sam Sheppard, was falsely imprisoned for the murder of his pregnant
wife, Marilyn, in the 1950s; his story was the basis for the TV
series and film "The Fugitive."
Like the hostess, Donna Larsen, whose son has been on death row since he
was 22, many of the people at the gathering are parents of inmates. But
one guest, Aba Gayle, holds a unique place in the strange community that
springs up around death row. Gayle is the mother of a murder victim, a
daughter named Catherine who was killed in 1980 when she was 19 years
Gayle is here because 12 years after her daughter's murder, she had a
religious epiphany, turned against the death penalty and befriended her
child's killer, Douglas Mickey. Now she visits death row every week,
and her conversation is littered with the jargon of prison
culture. She and the others sit on living room sofas and talk about the
men they know on death row with the casual, affectionate air of parents
chatting about their kids at college.
Even among murder victims' families who oppose the death penalty, Gayle
is unusual. Many of the 400 members of the anti-death penalty group
Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, to which she belongs, are
long-time liberals who gain some legitimacy in the death penalty debate
after losing a loved one and feel duty bound to use it. They see
themselves as living rebukes to the most basic death penalty argument:
What would you do if it was your child? However, a small but surprising number in
the group do exactly what Gayle has done -- reach out to their child's killer. "It's a small minority of our
membership, but a lot more than I expected when I got into this work,"
says director Pat Bane. "And for a number of others, that is their goal.
They say it may take 20 years, but they hope to be able to do it."
The people who have reconciled with murderers have remarkably similar
stories. Most were turned off by the
emphasis on vengeance and anger they found at traditional victim support
groups. They were often very religious before the murder or had
religious conversions after. Many of them say that the murder created
an inextricable bond between them and the killer. "When there is
something as huge in your life as a murder, somehow it
creates a kind of relationship, whether a hate relationship or a desire
to know more about the person who did it," says Bane. Perhaps most
significant, they say that years after the killing, everyone is sick
of hearing about their
murdered relative except the murderer himself.
The first time I met Gayle was at a cafe in Larkspur, 15 minutes from California's
San Quentin Prison, where she had spent the morning visiting. She was wearing
a purple and yellow dress that she calls her "prison dress" because of
the restrictions on the colors a guest can wear to visit death row
inmates -- no blue, gray, forest green, orange, khaki or black pants,
nothing that guards, prisoners or wardens might be wearing. "They want
us to stand out from the prisoners so they know who to shoot," she says.
"Anyway, I try to wear bright colors, because the men never see bright
Gayle is a short 64-year-old woman with a chin-length blond bob, red
glasses and pink cheeks. She gushes about many of the prisoners,
especially about their art and poetry. I ask her whether any of the
serial murderers have committed crimes that are just too awful for her to
treat them as friends. "I don't deal with their crime. I don't deal
with that part of them. I deal with the God spirit within them, which
everybody has. I shook hands with a man today, his name is Ted, he
comes from Southern California, and he kills little girls. What he did
is horrendous. Horrible. But that's not all he is. He is the most
Gayle's daughter Catherine had been staying at a ranch near Auburn with
her friend Eric when Douglas Mickey stabbed her 11 times. Mickey was Eric's
best friend, but in a drug-induced delusion, he had become convinced
that Eric was "stealing his power in some kind of mystical way," Gayle
says. He stayed for dinner and even played a board game with Catherine
and Eric before murdering them both.
Before her daughter's murder, Gayle had never thought one way or the
other about the death penalty. "I was a Kappa Kappa Gamma at the
University of Wisconsin, raised to be a middle-class suburban
housewife. My mother didn't raise me to go visit men on death row," she
says, laughing. And for most of the 12 years after Catherine was killed, Gayle would have been insulted if someone had said that Douglas Mickey was a human being
and not a beast. "The prosecutors had promised me that he would get the
death penalty and that when he did I would be free of this pain, and for
years I believed it," says Gayle. "I was an
atheist, I was unable to accept the basic teachings of any church at
that point and had been for years. Frankly, when your daughter is
murdered, who can believe in a God who would let that happen?"
While taking her sick mother to church, however, she began dropping in
on the adjacent spiritual bookstore, and eventually started attending
classes and tearing through books on Buddhism and metaphysics.
"You can't read a book a week out of a metaphysical bookstore without
something really dramatic happening to you inside," says Gale. "I became
very interested in a universal God, a God that is all love. It's a
philosophy that doesn't believe in Lucifer or the devil or original
sin. And that I could accept. I kind of fell in love with God, I
She decided to take a class called a Course in Miracles, described in
its Web site as "a self-study course in spiritual
psychotherapy." On the first day, the teacher showed the group a video
about the program. "In it a Jewish man said that after studying a Course
in Miracles, he was able to forgive not only the German people in
general but the actual guards in the camps who had murdered every single
member of his family," says Gayle. "And I thought, if he can do that, I
should be able to forgive the man who murdered Catherine."
But forgiveness was a struggle. When a student in another church class she was taking suggested that "forgiveness is not real unless you let the person know,"
she came unglued, incensed at the thought of ever visiting "that
scumbag" except on the day of his execution. Then, driving home
from class the last day, Gayle says a voice came to her. "It said, 'You
must forgive him, and you must let him know.' And that voice was so
loud and clear and persistent that it didn't let me sleep that
night. It had me out of bed and at my computer at 4 o'clock in the
morning, where I wrote a letter to the man who murdered Catherine."
"Dear Mr. Mickey," the letter began. "Twelve years ago I had a
beautiful daughter named Catherine." She wrote about her daughter and how
her death had devastated the family, and about how angry she had been at
him until, after studying a Course in Miracles, she found herself able
to forgive him. "I said, 'I don't want you to think that I think you're
innocent, and I don't want you to look to me to be a political advocate
on your behalf, but I do want you to know that you are forgiven.'" She
ended with, "The Christ in me sends blessings to the Christ in you."
Just talking about that letter, Gayle says, she still feels "a little
prickly something" down her back. "The mailbox was a little metal box
on the wall, so it made a little click when you put the mail in. I put
the letter in, and when I heard that click, all that horrible, ugly,
intense anger and rage that I had been carrying around all those years
-- all that need for revenge -- was gone. And in
its place I was instantly filled with the most incredible sense of love
and joy and peace. I was truly in a state of grace.
"What I learned in those classes is that we're all one," she continues,
"and you and I are as connected as I am connected to my very own flesh
and blood children because we're all divine children of God. And I was
as connected to Douglas Mickey, who murdered my daughter, as I was to
the daughter who was murdered. If I'd never gotten an answer to that
letter, it would have been OK."
But she did get an answer. "The letter I got back was from someone who
was obviously very, very bright and very spiritual, someone who had
spent years really studying hard. He wrote, 'The Christ in me most
gratefully acknowledges and accepts blessings from the Christ in you.'
And he talked a little bit about his life and how he opened my letter
with dreaded anticipation, thinking that I was writing to tell him what
a terrible person he is and how much I hated him. And then imagine how
he felt when he read what it did say." At the end of the letter he
wrote, "I would gladly give my life this instant if it
would in any way change that terrible night."
Mickey sent Gayle a visiting form. It took her 90 days to get
permission from San Quentin to visit, and during those months they
exchanged other letters. When the day finally came for her to go to
prison, she was alone and terrified.
"I'd been alone through every stage of this process. For some reason,
the people who were supposed to be my support system all disappeared
whenever I needed them. Very shortly after Catherine died, my husband
told me he didn't want to talk about her anymore and that
he did not intend to mourn her the rest of his life. My other two
children had both just started medical school, and I certainly couldn't
add any burdens to their lives. My mother had open heart surgery soon
after Catherine's death and I could never, ever let her see my pain. So
I drove down all alone, and talk about butterflies in your stomach. I
was just fluttering."
When she arrived, her first surprise was the death row visiting room. It
looks like a
community center rec room, with vending machines and landscape
paintings, and inmates and their visitors mingling freely. "I didn't see
single monster," Gayle recalls. "All I saw were ordinary human beings,
with their grandmothers and mothers and children and wives and
sweethearts. And every place I looked, I saw the face of God."
When Mickey came in, he said, "Gayle, you do me the greatest honor by
paying me this visit." They talked for three and a half hours. "I cried and he cried. We cried together. He's a very big, very tall, very
strong man and he wasn't the least bit embarrassed to sit there,
surrounded by other prisoners, and weep openly. We talked about
Catherine. No one else wanted to talk about Catherine anymore.
Everybody was sick to death at hearing me talk about Catherine, and he
would sit there and just let me talk about her. I left there that day,
after one visit in that place, and I knew that I would be his advocate.
I knew that I would do whatever I could for the rest of my life,
whatever it took, to see that none of those men were executed."
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Some members of traditional support groups for victims' families find
actions like Gayle's bewildering. "It sounds like an aberration rather than a
natural instinct," says Waltrute Boudewyn, a member of Parents of
Murdered Children, whose 19-year-old son Norman was murdered in 1987. "I
don't know a single parent who would want that [relationship]. It
sounds like an obsessive-compulsive way of associating themselves with
Sam Sheppard, who is a friend of Gayle's and a founding member of Murder
Victims' Families for Reconciliation, also worries about the passion
with which she and others have embraced their relative's murderers. He
compares it to the Stockholm syndrome, in which political prisoners
begin to identify with their captors. "The general public doesn't
understand them and some people are perceived as nuts, which is
unfortunate, because I think they are sincere. But the family members
need help, so that they can have a little better balance. Theoretically,
my friend Aba is going to have to go through an execution with this man.
She's setting herself up for a retraumatization." Sheppard would like to
see the group form a mediation panel to help determine if it would be
constructive for a victim's family to meet with the murderer or with
another prisoner. "Then people can reconcile in a less intense, less
volatile setting," says Sheppard.
Sheppard, however, has met the man who he believes killed his mother -- a window-washer in the Sheppard home who is now in prison for another
murder -- and he admits he feels an intense connection to him. "It's a
marriage in a sense. The offender and the victim are
forever linked." Sheppard has also met with another serial killer. "He
taught me more about my mother's murderer than anyone in the world. He
helped explain to me how somebody could come to do this kind of thing.
In that case, he helped me."
In some cases, killers who did not receive death or life sentences have
been paroled through the intervention of a victim's family -- a
situation that makes some fear that murderers may take advantage of
those who are overly eager to make peace with them. Walter Everett, a
United Methodist minister in Connecticut, testified at an early
release hearing for the man who killed his son Scott. Michael Carlucci
was released after serving two and a half years. Three years ago,
Everett presided over his wedding.
"There was no point to him staying in prison," says Everett, who was
convinced that Carlucci, a drug addict at the time of the murder, had
changed. "Prison should not be designed to punish, but to
rehabilitate." But what if Carlucci killed again? "I really didn't
expect anything to happen, but as Mike has said to people, there are no
guarantees," says Everett. "You can't live in constant fear, you've got
to do some trusting. If he had gone back to doing drugs and harming
other people, I would have been sorry for what had happened, but I suppose I would not have regretted what I did for my own
Everett may have been more sympathetic to Carlucci's drug problem
because Scott had been an alcoholic. "Scott had been sober about a year
and half, then his girl broke up with him," Everett says about the
night of the murder. Scott came home to find his apartment ransacked.
Furious, he ran out to the parking lot, then went back to his apartment
only to find he had locked his keys inside. He began pounding on the
door. Carlucci, who lived on the same floor, came out of his apartment
to see what the racket was. "Get out of here or I'll shoot," he said.
Scott told him he was trying to get into his apartment, then pushed his
way past him to the security entrance. Carlucci shot him.
After his son's murder, Everett starting going to a traditional support
group for victims' families. "I could see people carrying a tremendous
weight of anger 15 years after the murder. I said, I don't want that to
be me, but how can I get out of it?" Then Everett went to court for
Carlucci's sentencing. "I heard Mike say, 'I'm sorry for what I did.
These probably sound like empty words, and they can't bring him back.'
Someone with me said, 'He can't possibly have meant that. He is trying
to impress the judge.' But I decided to write him a letter."
On the first anniversary of his son's death, Everett wrote to
Carlucci. "I told Mike about all the anger and how I had trouble
figuring out how anyone could do what he did. I also said, 'I want to
thank you for your words on the day you were sentenced, and as hard as
this is to write, I forgive you. If you want to write back, I welcome
When Carlucci got the letter, Everett says, he thought Everett was just
out to harass him. His counselor at the prison offered to look at it
first, then said, "'I think you ought to read this.' Nobody in this life
had ever said 'I forgive you' to him before," says Everett.
A few months later, Carlucci asked Everett to visit. "It hit like a ton
of bricks," says Everett. "The only time I'd ever seen him was on the
day he'd been sentenced. I wrote back and said that I wasn't sure
whether either of us was ready, but I think we need to give it a try."
But when Everett arrived at the prison, Carlucci wasn't there. He had
been transferred to a medium security facility a few days before. "I
felt a tremendous sense of rage that the state would take the guy who
murdered my son and move him into medium security so soon," he recalls.
"It was completely irrational, especially coming from someone on his way
to visit him to talk about forgiveness.
"A lot of people think you need to feel forgiving in order to forgive,"
says Everett. "I don't think so. It's an intentional act of the will to
say, 'I want to begin healing,' but it's a process that will occur over
the rest of my life."
Everett drove to the new prison. He laughs now when he recalls that as a
clergyman, he had been able to walk right in to the dozens of prisons he
visited, but that day he was frisked. "They were probably pretty sure I
was coming to harm Mike," he says. While he waited for a few minutes
that seemed like an eternity, he tried to think of what he would say.
"When he walked in, I said, 'Mike, you've gained weight.' He said, 'Yup,
55 pounds in five months.' He'd been living on drugs and alcohol and
probably would have been dead in a few months. Soon we got into more
meaningful conversation. On my way out, I was going to shake hands, but
instinctively we embraced."
Though it may have been risky for Everett to help free Carlucci, there
is a small amount of evidence that criminals who have reconciled with
their victims have lower recidivism rates, according to Dacher Keltner,
an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California at
Berkeley who specializes in emotion and conflict. "Reconciliation is
fundamentally important to social relationships and at a broader level
for society," he says. "We live in a rights and punishment based
society, and it's a very sensible outgrowth that most victims would seek
punishment and retribution. A certain degree of a sense of injustice is
good, but where does revenge become
dysfunctional? Anger causes health problems and makes relationships
worse. The alternative is sympathy and forgiveness. Those people who
are feeling those sentiments aren't in denial; they're abiding by a
whole different moral approach to wrongdoing."
In fact, the research Keltner cites has spawned programs in San
Francisco and New York that bring offenders together with victims,
though not necessarily those linked by the same crime. Donald Goodman,
an associate professor at the prestigious John Jay College of Criminal
Justice, runs one such program, Alternatives to Violence, at Greenhaven
Prison, a maximum security facility in Stormville, N.Y. Goodman
believes that, in general, prisoners tend to obsess over their crimes
without taking responsibility for them -- and that the criminal justice
system works against remorse.
"Immediately after your arrest, you start thinking of defense. You get
a lawyer and in effect start to try to find ways of denying
responsibility for your actions. And then during the trial, you're
acting under the directions of your attorney, who will often tell you
not to show any emotion. There is a brief moment before sentencing when
you have time for a statement, but you've been told that your case is
going to be appealed, so any statement you make could be taken as a
confession. Then you're sentenced and you go off and there's not much
of a place to explore your feelings." Conversely, in sessions where
inmates encounter victims, Goodman says, they begin to take
responsibility for what they did.
Another program, Resolve to Stop the Violence Project, or RSVP, is run
by San Francisco Assistant Sheriff Michael Marcum with the help of a
grant from billionaire George Soros. RSVP has 62 offenders at a time working on a
nonviolence curriculum that includes meetings with victims. Most of
them are domestic batterers, not murderers, but Marcum also has a keen
understanding of killers -- he served seven years for murder himself,
after killing his father when he was 18.
Marcum says he used to caution people against getting too involved with
inmates. "I spent a lot of time when I first got out many years ago
discouraging people from falling in love and bonding with prisoners.
There's this sort of repulsion and attraction. Some of it is romantic
-- it's sort of the outlaw image -- but it is more complex than that."
After 30 years of working with prisoners, however, Marcum says that
seeing the communication between victims and offenders in the program has reenergized
Marcum believes that most people in prison are capable of
sympathizing with their victims. "If you knock off the 5 percent that
are really psychopathic, the others might brag about what they've done out of
fear, but they know it's bull. Every prisoner I ever did time with or
worked with knows that. They don't really want to be an animal; they
want a chance to be a human. And when people have hurt someone else,
part of that chance is making amends."