For a long time, my experience as a public defender supported my belief that some people deserved life sentences. One client chilled me to the core. As a juvenile, he had graduated from burglary and auto theft to armed robbery, holding up three separate victims in the course of two days. The first victim was a young mother playing with her kids in a park; the second was an 11-year-old on a bike. My client preyed on the vulnerable. When he took their property at gunpoint, he said the same thing: “I want that.” It was the object he cared about; the people meant nothing to him.
I recognized something of David Biro in him. David is the man who murdered my sister, Nancy, her husband, Richard, and their unborn child. After a long struggle, I had forgiven David, said his name, even prayed for him. But I still wasn’t certain I wanted him to serve less than his full life sentence. David was serving a mandatory life sentence for killing Nancy and Richard. He was serving a discretionary life sentence for intentionally killing their unborn child. But changes to sentencing procedures for juveniles by a Supreme Court ruling meant that David was likely to seek a resentencing hearing to reduce at least part of his sentence to less than life. I had no idea whether I could support the release of David at such a hearing. “He’s still remorseless,” I told a friend.
“How do you know that?” he responded, leaning across the table. “You don’t know that. You’ve never even spoken to him.” I was stunned. He was right.
I had spoken about the murders and forgiveness all over the world: France, Ireland, Mongolia, Japan and all across the United States. I had written articles about forgiving David Biro, given speeches at churches and schools and conferences. But one person I had not told: him. Never once had I communicated my forgiveness to David Biro. I had waited all these years for him to apologize to me. I saw it now with startling clarity: I had to apologize to him, for never telling him that I had forgiven him. I had to go first.
All God’s Children
That wasn’t all. The Holy Spirit, the spirit of God that moves like wind, blowing things open, scattering debris, wasn’t done with me yet. On a Sunday morning months later, I went to a “church on the beach” service held by Christ Church, a charming, ivy-covered stone church set on a hill near Lake Michigan in the town where I live. It’s a pleasant change from the Gothic formality of my Presbyterian church in downtown Chicago.
I arrived late, just in time to hear the priest, a man in a black shirt and white collar, cargo shorts and Birkenstocks, begin his homily. He was talking about how the Sunday after the Episcopal Church’s national convention is a kind of liturgical season of its own: the season of complaints. Every year, he said, on the Sunday after the convention he feels like a human dartboard. Members of his congregation call or email him, demanding to know: Why did the church vote in favor of that? How could the church decide this? The priest’s response: When you get a thousand Episcopalians in a room, you get a thousand different opinions. “It’s a mess!” the priest observed, half-ruefully, half-cheerfully. He threw up his hands. “A mess!”
He went on, tying the messiness of the human condition to stories from Scripture. One was about King David, taking a woman who was the wife of another man, then arranging that man’s death in battle. Another was the awful story of the beheading of John the Baptist because of Herod’s moment of misbegotten pride.
“We are a mess, all of us. And how does God respond to that messiness? Mercy. Mercy. Mercy,” the priest concluded, pausing after each word, his voice dropping to a whisper with the last. That word hung in the still, sunlit air. We sat silent, no sound but the distant crash of waves on the beach, the song of birds overhead. The word lodged in my heart. Mercy.
We, the congregation, said that word a short time later, just before we lined up under the shade of a spreading tree to take the bread and wine. “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world: have mercy upon us.”
You take away the sins of the world, I pondered. What does that mean? Whatever it meant, I knew that it couldn’t mean saying to any human being: We are taking the sin you committed and freezing it in time forever. No matter what you do, how much you repent and show remorse, you are forever only one thing—a killer—and we will punish you endlessly for it. I knew this in my heart: I could no longer support this merciless sentence of life without parole for juveniles.
And in the very next moment, like daylight breaking into darkness, I knew something else. I’d always thought that the only thing big enough to pay for the life of my sister was a life sentence for her killer. Now I understood: The only thing big enough to equal the loss of her life was for him to be found.
Late at night on the last day of September 2012, I put my two sons to bed and crept downstairs in the darkened house. I sat at the computer, turned on a small desk light and typed a letter to David, which read, in part:
I have heard news of you: how prison has been hard at times because of your association with me and my sisters. I am sorry for that. Nancy above all was about love; she never would have wanted her death to result in more brutality, even to the person who took her life.
You have heard news of me: how I have forgiven you for killing my family members. I never conveyed that forgiveness to you directly; I am sorry for that, too. It was wrong to tell other people and not the most important person of all: you....
[I read a book about forgiveness by Dr. Randall O’Brien. I called him to ask:] How do I reconcile with someone whose position is, I have not wronged you? He responded with some stunning observations.
First, that you and I are no different in the eyes of God. I am someone who has fallen short and hurt God’s heart; I have sinned, to use that biblical word, just as you have. You are a child of God, created in God’s image, just as I am. God loves you every bit as much as me; nothing you have done could ever stop God from loving you. The division I have made between us—you, guilty murderer, me, innocent victims’ family member—was a false divide. I was wrong to do that.
Randall’s second observation was this: How did Jesus respond to the people who were taking his life, in the very moment they were killing him? He prayed for them: Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing.
It struck me that I had never prayed for you. I had never even said your name. That was wrong of me, too. So I did pray for you, in the garden outside Kenilworth Union Church—you know the place—where Nancy and Richard and their baby are buried, alongside my father, who found their bodies the morning after they died.
Here is what I have come to believe: sentences like the death penalty and life without parole reflect our need to find a response to something as heinous as the murder of innocents equal in weight and gravity to the crime itself.
The only thing that could possibly pay for the loss of Nancy, her husband and their baby is this nearly impossible thing: that you would make your way home to God, the way the Prodigal Son in one of Jesus’ parables finds his way home.
So I can no longer support the sentence of juvenile life without parole. It says to you, and to every other person serving that sentence: never. No matter what you do, how you may be transformed, or who you become, we will never even give you a chance to get out of prison....
How would he respond? Would he respond at all? I had visions of him reading my letter and laughing— showing it to a cell mate, maybe, scoffing at my earnest foolishness. All I knew was this: it was out of my hands now. It was in the hands of God.
Then one day I stopped at the mailbox in the public defender’s office where I work and pulled a stack of mail from the slot: some returned subpoenas, some junk mail and a large manila envelope with a return address from a downstate prison. It was from David.
I called a friend and made an unusual request: would he open and read the letter first? He readily answered yes. Two days after I received the letter, he did that. After he read it, he looked up at my anxious face and smiled, a calm, quiet smile. “It’s good,” he said. David’s letter went on for 15 pages, and my friend read it aloud to me. It read, in part:
I know that for a long time you and your family have been looking for me to confess to the murders I committed years ago. Of course, as you know in the past, I have always maintained my “innocence.” Well, for a lot of reasons which I’ll get into in a little bit, I think the time has come for me to drop the charade and finally be honest. You’re right, I am guilty of killing your sister Nancy, and her husband Richard. I also want to take this opportunity to express my deepest condolences and apologize to you.
When I heard these words, a cry escaped my lips, a kind of sob buried so deep, I hadn’t known it was there. I leaned forward, fingers pressed to my mouth. To hear those words: You’re right, I am guilty.... I never thought I would hear that, ever. It was more than I’d ever dreamed. My friend was right: it was good.
My mind filled with wonder. Who could have imagined this? Not in my wildest dreams did I suppose David Biro might do what he had resisted doing ever since the murders: confess and say he was sorry. It was beyond anything I could have asked for—and I knew, even as I heard his apology, that it would not have come if I had not gone first. The time I spent waiting for that apology! That was the price I paid for my coldness toward Biro, for holding myself aloof. I understood for the first time what Jesus was saying to us about apologies: You go first. Don’t wait.