Today on Facebook, grief expert Rob Zucker shared a fascinating article about Conor McBride, who was forgiven by the parents of his girlfriend, whom he murdered. The article asks the question “Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice?” and discusses restorative-justice diversion programs, a movement that seeks to reconcile criminals and their victims — and to let victims’ forgiveness play a role in sentencing. Together, Conor’s parents and the parents of the murdered girl, Ann Margaret Grosmaire, consulted with Sujatha Baliga, who leads the Restorative Justice Project at the National Council on Crime & Delinquency. Working together with the prosecutor, the parents succeeded in getting a reduced sentence for Conor.

It’s a messy story about a horrible crime, but it does cause me to reflect on repentance, mercy, and capital punishment.

Years ago, I was struck by something said by computer scientist David Gelernter, who was maimed in 1993 by a package bomb from the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. How did Gelernter feel about the death penalty for Kaczynski, who also murdered three people? Here’s what Gelernter wrote in his 1997 book Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber, as quoted in a review of the book:

I would sentence him to death. And I would commute the sentence in one case only, if he repents, apologizes and begs forgiveness of the dead men’s families, and the whole world — and tells us how he plans to spend the whole rest of his life pleading with us to hate the vileness and evil he embodied and to love life, to protect and defend it, and tell us how he sees with perfect agonizing clarity that he deserves to die — then and only then I’d commute his sentence…

An unrepentant Kaczynski pleaded guilty in 1998 to escape the death penalty and is serving life without possibility of parole.

In 1999 in Utne Reader, Gelernter wrote an essay that is at the same time thoughtful and impassioned. The essay is titled, “What Do Murderers Deserve?” with the subtitle, “In a┬áresponsible┬ásociety, the death penalty has its virtues.” In the opening paragraph he writes,

A Texas woman, Karla Faye Tucker, murdered two people with a pickax, was said to have repented in prison, and was put to death. A Montana man, Theodore Kaczynski, murdered three people with mail bombs, did not repent, and struck a bargain with the Justice Department: He pleaded guilty and will not be executed. (He also attempted to murder others and succeeded in wounding some, myself included.) Why did we execute the penitent and spare the impenitent? However we answer this question, we surely have a duty to ask it.

I have no essential problem with the death penalty. Often when learning about some abhorrent crime, I’ve found myself thinking, why not just save us all a lot of time a grief and put a needle in his arm right now? At the same time, capital punishment is unevenly administered in this world. You’re less likely to get executed if you can pay for better counsel. And what about the role of repentance? In a just world, I guess that would make a difference. But in the messy one we are stuck with for the time being, it seems likely that repentance and forgiveness will only be allowed to make a difference at the margins where you find ideas like restorative justice.

ARB — 6 January 2013