When people talk about forgiving killers, they tend to distinguish
between the psychopaths and the drug addicts or armed robbers or other
offenders who seem somehow less evil, more capable of rehabilitation.
But one founding member of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation
made her peace with a killer whose crimes were as grisly as those of the
most notorious serial murderers.
Marietta Jeager was on a camping trip with her husband and children in
Montana when David (she doesn't use his last name because she doesn't want to hurt his family) cut through one
of their tents with a knife and kidnapped her 7-year-old daughter,
Susie. He kept her locked in a cabin for a week, where he tortured and
raped her. Then he killed and cannibalized her. A year after the
murder, he still had not been caught. On the first anniversary of
Susie's death, he called Jeager at her home in Michigan to taunt her.
Jeager quietly asked him, "What can I do to help you?" He was so
undone, she says, that he eventually gave her enough information for the
FBI to catch him.
When Jeager told me this story, I assumed that she had simply tried to
keep him on the phone long enough to find out where he was. She
insists, however, that her forgiveness was genuine. "It really was, to
my own amazement," she says. "I had been working on it and praying for
it for a whole year. And it turned the whole thing around, because his
intention was to call and get his kicks and hang up. What undid him was
that I asked what I could do to help him. He started crying, and that's when I
really realized what a miracle had happened to me. He said, 'I wish
this burden could be lifted from me,' and then he couldn't stop crying. He kept asking me to hang
up and I wouldn't because it was my only link to my little girl." They
talked for more than an hour.
The murderer hanged himself in his cell, so Jeager never spoke with him
again. Had he lived, she says, she would have written him and maybe
visited. "We're all capable of evil," she says. "Some saint
said, 'There but for the grace of God go I.' Murderers themselves have
first been victims of violence -- verbal, physical, sexual. For
many of them, that's all they've ever known. The man who took my little
girl was a very, very sick young man. His ideas about sexuality and
atonement for sin and making sacrifice came from his very Fundamentalist
background. And he was schizophrenic. There were all kinds of people in
him telling each other what to do."
Her daughter's murder was so brutal, so extreme, that Jeager's
forgiveness awes even other members of Murder Victims' Families for
Reconciliation. Aba Gayle, whose daughter was also killed, calls her a
saint. Jeager insists she's far from it. "I keep saying I want to fart
and belch in front of people who say that to show them it's not true.
The reason I object is that it lets people say, 'Marietta can do it,
she's different.' I want to say that I'm just like everybody else. I
don't want people to look for reasons not to deal with forgiveness
because I know what a gift it is, the healthiness and wholesomeness that
it brings to my life."
She believes that forgiveness is the only way to preserve one's health
after a trauma like a child's murder. "More and more of the medical
profession is telling us that the root causes of our illnesses and
addictions are old hatreds and resentments," she says. "We forgive first
of all for our own sake. Spirituality prompted my decision to forgive,
but also the knowledge that hatred is not healthy."
Waltrute Boudewyn, a member of the traditional support group Parents of
Murdered Children, agrees that murder can destroy the health of a victim's
family members. "Some people are affected to the point where they have
heart attacks. In my observation, it can be likened to a crashing of
the immune system so that you become more susceptible to diseases."
That's exactly what happened to Jeager's husband, who had a heart attack
shortly after the murder. "I saw the deleterious effects that it had on
him," Jeager says. "He died an early death because his body couldn't
take the stress of holding on to that hate. Those who maintain a
vindictive mind-set give the killer another victim. When an execution is
done with, they realize that they don't feel healed. They feel guilty
that they bought into the lie that another death would make up to them
what they lost. The truth is that there is no amount of retaliatory
deaths that will compensate for the loss of our loved ones or restore
them to our arms. To say that an execution would be just retribution is
really to insult the immeasurable value of any one person to us."
Like Jeager, Aba Gayle's best friend, Sue Norton, is admired by other
members of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation because of how
quickly she forgave the man who murdered her relatives -- in this case,
her father and stepmother. In fact, an hour before an Oklahoma jury gave
Robert Knighton the death penalty, Norton was sitting outside his cell
holding his hand.
Norton, like Gayle, believes she was given a direct message from God to
forgive Knighton, whom she calls BK. "I had
never thought of forgiving him, ever. This man was a mean, bad man.
He'd been an Aryan Brotherhood leader in prison. But I came to realize
that killing him was not going to take away my hurt."
When the jury went into deliberation, Norton looked so upset that
Knighton's attorney asked if she was all right. She told him that she
needed to see Knighton. "When I was sitting in front of his jail cell, I
said, 'I don't know what to say to you, but I don't hate you.'"
replied, "You should. You'd be better off."
She told him, "I've never
hated anyone in my whole life and I'm not going to start. If you're
guilty, I forgive you." Then she reached inside the jail cell and held
his hand. "He didn't barely touch my fingers and I just grabbed on," she
recalls. "This big old mean man had one tear rolling down his face, and
that was the first of many tears that BK and I have shared."
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Now, Norton says, old friends in her Kansas town think she's a "fanatic
and weirdo," and cross the street when they see her. Her friendship with
BK -- she says she is his only friend -- has also led to acrimony
between her and her sister, not uncommon when one family member forgives
a killer whom the rest of the family wants dead. "My sister is a very
vindictive, hateful person, and she's not a Christian," says Norton.
"I'm not telling you that to put her down. That whole courtroom was
filled with people like that; the sentiment in that courtroom and that
town was to fry the bastard."
"I don't think any of us who have given forgiveness haven't
risked losing some relationship with our family," says Ron Gillihan, a
self-described "button-down three-piece executive" from Florida who has written an
unpublished book about his friendship with the man who murdered his son
called "Side by Side." "I think our families love us, but they don't
Gayle says her daughter was initially upset at her relationship with her other daughter's killer, Douglas
Mickey, but has come to understand it. "She never said anything to me,
but her husband finally said, 'How can you visit him when it
hurts Elizabeth so much?' I had no idea that it hurt her for me to go,
but the fact was that I was going to go anyway. I don't need to ask
permission from my children to go visit a friend, regardless of who that
friend might be. But she has since begun to really admire and respect
what I do," says Gayle.
In November, Gayle went with Norton to visit Knighton at McAlester
prison in Oklahoma -- she had been given permission to visit his
cellmate, Jerry. "It's an underground prison, just like a tomb," says
Norton. "They get out of their cell one hour a day if the guards feel
like allowing them to have a shower or go to the yard. If you and
another person go and stay in your bathroom for 24 hours, you'll get
a little bit of an idea of what it's like. I'm not saying they shouldn't
be punished," Norton continues, "but the punishment is the death
penalty, so I don't understand why they're allowed to torture them for
years and years before they execute them."
Gayle wrote about the visit in a characteristically chipper letter that
she sent to all the men she has befriended in San Quentin. "Jerry is
BK's cellie. He just turned 21, the crime was committed when he was 16
years old. I am about to meet a new friend. Jerry was very nervous
about meeting me. He turned out to be a handsome, fun and intelligent
young man. We talked about his family and we talked about books we have
both read. We exchanged redneck jokes. The glass on Jerry's side
became fogged up due to lack of air and he had to wipe it off several
times. That drab dreary dungeon became a warm and magical place for two
Gayle seems oddly in her element in death row visiting rooms. Though
she does not want me to write to Mickey, who she says is a very private
person, she does give me the address of one of the other men she visits on San Quentin's death row,
a former gang member from Los Angeles named James Scott. One morning in
December, I go with her to visit Scott at the prison. When she picks
me up, the "Dead Man Walking" soundtrack is playing on her car stereo.
In line at the first checkpoint, Gayle introduces a beautifully dressed
woman as an inmate's lawyer; later, on the way in, she tells me
the woman is also his girlfriend. The death row visiting room reeks of
microwave popcorn and is crammed full of inmates, their families,
friends and lawyers. Gayle greets several of them and points out
paintings on the wall that were done by a prisoners she knows. In one
corner, Richard Ramirez -- better known as the Night Stalker, who terrorized Southern California in the 1980s with a reign of sexual torture and murder -- holds hands with his
wife, a mousy woman in pink and white. Younger inmates run
around the room, talking to each other and scarfing vending machine
snacks. Older white prisoners sit huddled with their mothers. Gayle
points out a one-way mirror. Behind it, she tells me, is a guard with a
When Scott comes out, Gayle hugs him, and then he hugs me. She knows
what kind of candy bar he wants -- a Hershey's with almonds. He is
thin, with a sparse goatee and mustache and a tiny tear tattooed under
his left eye. He high-fives some of the younger prisoners. Gayle is also
visiting another inmate, a Native American man in his 60s named Ray
Allen, whom Gayle calls by his Cherokee name, Running Bear. "Gayle is
Godsent," Allen tells me. "She has been such a joy. I don't know where
she gets her energy. We try to hold on to all the people that's honest
and friendly because I don't think most people care whether I live or
Scott calls Gayle "MAW," which he says stands for "mystical angelic
woman." "I'm not the monster that society would like me to be," says
Scott. "But a lot of people in here haven't forgiven themselves, haven't
accepted that they're responsible." I ask him whether he ever worries
those inmates who haven't reformed might take advantage of Gayle. "If I
found out someone was taking advantage of Gayle, I'd have to get on
their ass because she's like a mother to me," he says. Then, a few
beats later, he adds sheepishly, "I didn't mean to sound violent or
anything." Scott asks me if I have a boyfriend and then if my boyfriend
would be willing to visit him. "I need all the friends I can get," he
says with a small smile.
I try to talk to Scott about forgiveness and reconciliation, but he
keeps going off on tangents about Egyptian spirituality and
Afrocentrism. He wears an ankh around his neck that Gayle
gave him. "I cherish it," he says. In a letter to me later, however,
Scott elaborated on forgiveness a little more. "No, I have never spoken
to the victim's family and to be totally honest with you I could not do
it!" he wrote. "Because I have acquired a consciousness and I know I
would break down emotionally. I know I would feel their pain. I feel it
every day that I awaken, yet my family has pain as well." The letter
continued, "I did feel uncomfortable at first, Aba coming to visit me --
But when she enlightened me about her and [Mickey's] communication, I
became at ease."
After about three hours in the claustrophic room, Gayle and I step out
onto the grounds of San Quentin to a jarring sight: a lovely view of San
Francisco Bay, with palm trees swaying over the water. Gayle remarks how
sad it is that none of the men will ever see it. "They could put some
windows in the visiting room," she says ruefully. "The men regard that
room as their living room. They could make it so nice for them if they