The Truth About Forgiveness

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By Karen Houppert
Sunday, March 22, 2009

Fourteen years ago, Bernard's neighbor shot his 17-year-old son on a Baltimore street. Shot him with a semiautomatic rifle that left a hole in his chest so big that Bernard's wife swears she could see the pavement, plain as day, through the giant wound. Shot him in a fit of pique, a moment of vigilante justice. Shot him when the teen and some friends were goofing around, dribbling a basketball down the street. Shot him after Bernard's son had knocked into the neighbor's Toyota 4Runner truck, set off the car alarm, roused him from his slumbers. Because he was angry at kids who'd been harassing him with that car alarm, because he had a Ruger Mini-14 handy, because he knew how to use this lightweight version of the military's M14 as he fired out of his bedroom window just after midnight. Shot Vernon Williams dead on May 21, 1994, one month after his 17th birthday.

For Bernard Williams, even 14 years later, it is hard to think about the man who killed his son. The scene still plays out in his head over and over. The sirens. The police helicopter. The flashing lights. His dead son in his arms. The police leading the suspect, William Norman, out of the house. Norman's girlfriend spying Bernard hunched over his son's body. "That your son?" she asked. And again, "Bernard, that your son?" And then an awful recognition. "I'm sorry."

But for Bernard, forgiveness comes hard. It requires peeling back the layers of a life, tracing the arc of relationships, recasting a narrative over and over to worry some telling detail. Sometimes it means going right to the source, confronting the offender in a quest for answers. And, as Bernard has come to realize, it also requires forgiving yourself.

But it begins with vengeance.

***

At the sentencing hearing in 1995, after 30-year-old William Norman pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for shooting Vernon several months earlier, Bernard Williams was intent on seeing his son's killer locked away forever.

"Your honor," he told the judge, "I would like to see this man punished for the murder of my son, Vernon Williams. I would like to see him receive the maximum sentence. If possible, I wish he could spend the rest of his life in jail without ever touching the streets again."

Bernard railed against Norman and a judicial system that had granted this murderer basic human rights: "There stood a man on trial for his life . . . knowing that he in fact murdered my son . . . He gets to tell his story as to what happened. Now he becomes a person with rights, a right to defend himself, this time in court, the right to save his life. But on May 21, 1994, what right did Mr. Norman allow my son Vernon?"

How could one neighbor do this to another? Bernard wondered. While he did not know William Norman personally, he knew the man's girlfriend, Linda Freeman, and the couple's 5-year-old daughter. Each day, Bernard walked his own daughter to kindergarten and chatted on the playground with Freeman as they waited for the bell to ring that would call the children inside. Indeed, their daughters would remain friends throughout their 12 years in school together.

But at the sentencing hearing in March 1995, Bernard could not envision the future.

"Maybe one day I'll find it in my heart to forgive this man," Bernard wrote to the judge in his victim impact statement, describing the effects of the murder on himself and his family. "But that won't be today or for many, many years to come."

***


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