The Truth About Forgiveness
After his son was murdered, Bernard Williams became consumed by anger and depression. There was, he came to realize, only one way to save himself.

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."

***

On this day, Bernard, 58, sits in the spotless living room of his Baltimore rowhouse surrounded by the portraits and high school diplomas of the children in his blended family. On the low coffee table in front of him are the bottle of Pepsi he always has going, a booklet -- "What Does the Bible Really Teach?" -- and, at the center, a portrait his kids have given him, with "Dad" inscribed repeatedly around the frame. He is a tall man who perches uncomfortably on the edge of his floral couch as if he can't quite relax until he gets this story right. "I ran this scenario in my mind so many times," he says. "I should have made him come home that night. That's the answer right there."

There, he said it.

He puts both hands, palms down, on his thighs to still himself. He shakes his head. "I should've made him come home."

Pause.

"But what they say? Hindsight is 20/20."

He tries to leave it, but then circles around and nibbles at it from the other side. "Or I should have taken him over to his mother's house, instead of waiting until Saturday morning," he says, explaining that Vernon lived with him and his wife, Diane Whitfield, but was supposed to spend the weekend with his biological mother. "He was going to go on Friday, but he was having a good time with his friends, so I said, 'We can go tomorrow.' "

Pause.

"I shouldn't a said that."

Some should and shouldn'ts later -- the beads of a rosary -- Bernard finally gets to the Friday night in question. His son Vernon, nicknamed Beethoven because of the mess of hair on his head at birth and the fact that Bernard had been listening to Walter Murphy & the Big Apple Band's 1976 disco hit "A Fifth of Beethoven" on the radio while driving to the hospital the day his second son was born, was up the block at a friend's house watching basketball on TV. Beethoven had a curfew of 12 a.m. on weekends, so just before midnight on Friday, Bernard strolled up the block to bring his son home. Beethoven, his older brother and a couple of friends had just spilled out onto the porch during halftime. "Come on home, boy. You know you got a curfew," Bernard remembers telling him.

"Dad, can I stay up here another half-hour or so?" Beethoven asked.

Bernard thought about that a minute, then shrugged. "Sure." He turned and began walking back to his house a few blocks away. As he neared the house, he heard some gunshots. But they sounded far away. He figured they had come from Parkside, a nearby neighborhood notorious for violence, and recalls saying as much to a neighbor he passed: "Them fools down at Parkside, they doin' their shootin'. You can tell it a Friday."

He went inside.

Moments later there was a knock on the door. When Bernard answered it, Beethoven's friend Joe Wright, known as "Little Joe," stood there. "Mr. Bernard, Beethoven got shot."

Bernard didn't buy it. The boys were always joking around with him. "Joe, stop playing," Bernard told the teen. "Tell Beethoven I said, 'Come on.' "

"Honest, honest, honest," Little Joe said. "Beethoven got shot."

Bernard stared at Little Joe. Then he heard the sirens and the police helicopter and took off running up the street. He went to the house where he had just left his son. Beethoven wasn't there. "He's just down the street," someone told him, "in front of the old folks' home."

He tore off, racing toward some houses that wedged up against a senior citizens residence. There, a block and a half from his own home, he found his son, surrounded by police cars, dead.

Later, he would try to piece together what had happened in the 15 minutes between giving his son an extension on his curfew and holding his dead body in his arms. But to this day, conflicting stories exist. This is how Bernard describes the night: After Bernard left, a couple of the kids decided to go to McDonald's for cheeseburgers. The teens, most of whom played basketball for nearby Lake Clifton-Eastern High School, took a basketball to dribble as they walked. As they passed by William Norman's truck, one of the boys sent the ball flying toward the vehicle, either accidentally or on purpose. Beethoven went after the ball, slammed into the truck and set off the car alarm. The other boys took off flying.

Around these bare-bone facts 14 years later, Bernard and Diane find plenty of room for argument. Norman had been charged with first-degree murder. But the trial, where the sequence of events might have been carefully mapped out with witnesses and summations, was cut short when Norman pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. Questions needle the Williams family. Definitive answers elude them. So they debate.

"I think it was a setup, myself," Diane says. She sits on the far side of the living room from Bernard and scowls, her hair pulled back tight in a severe ponytail.

"No, I'm not going that way with that," says Bernard. He shakes his head.

She juts her chin up slightly. A challenge to give her view some airtime.

What she's talking about, Bernard explains, is that some neighborhood kids had been vandalizing Norman's truck. They'd exchanged words with Norman and allegedly threatened him. He threatened back. "The boys that had this thing with Mr. Norman; they told my son, 'Let's go to McDonald's, get a cheeseburger and stuff,' and they was gonna treat. You know, and come back and watch the game. My son always had a basketball in his hands. If he didn't have a basketball in his hands, it was only because he had his brother or sister's hand. He was bouncing the ball, and I guess, when he was bouncing it -- " Bernard pauses to let the moment play out in his mind again. "I don't know how it went exactly. I'm just speculating. They didn't push him." He is emphatic about that.

Diane harrumphs, skeptically. She thinks the other boys knocked Beethoven into the truck. She thinks they set him up.

Bernard refuses to go down that road. "They went to go for the ball. Yeah, I think they kind of, like, went to grab the ball, and my son probably went like that --" He mimes lunging for a ball. "And he fell toward the truck."

He gestures with his hands, graceful long fingers outstretched, reaching for the right words. "Mr. Norman had a clear shot at my son. And this is the only thing I can guess because I know my son . . . My son was waiting. He didn't run. He waited for someone who owned that vehicle to come out so he could explain to him that it was an accident. That's the kind of person he was. And that's the reason Mr. Norman had a clear shot at him."

Over and over, in different ways, Bernard and Diane attempt to answer the question they don't dare to verbalize: Was Beethoven, in fact, one of those kids who had been "messing with the truck" that week? Slowly, over the years, they have built a case that this was impossible. Bernard spoke to Norman's immediate next-door neighbor, who had seen the kids setting off the truck alarm. He learned that she didn't recognize any of them. Bernard was triumphant: That means Beethoven could not have been one of the vandals because this neighbor knew Beethoven well. To Diane, it matters less. "Why would you want to shoot at some children, anyway, even if they were messin' with your car?" she insists. But Bernard cares desperately. He believes that since his son was a young black man who died on the crime-ridden streets of inner-city America, folks will be quick to think the worst.

And indeed, Beethoven's life was acknowledged with nothing more than a $4,018 funeral and three brief articles in the Baltimore Sun. There was no hue and cry for stricter gun laws. No official indignation at this loss of life. Just another young black male dead in a city that saw 255 other black males murdered that year.

Fourteen years later, this bothers Bernard more than anything. He hates the idea that his son has become a statistic: just another dead black kid. "I wanna make this clear," he says. "Can I say this? Every time something happens like this, us parents got to say, regardless of if this child was good or bad, 'He was a good kid.' But I want it to be known when I say, 'He was a good kid,' he was. I'm not saying that because he was my son or nothing."

Bernard needs to get that straight. This is not an aside to him. This is an integral part of the story.

"He was a good kid."

***

Occasionally over the years, Bernard fantasized about confronting Beethoven's murderer face to face and telling him that. William Norman ought to know, Bernard figured, everything about what a great teenager Beethoven was. His sense of humor. His kindness toward the gaggle of younger siblings -- aged 4, 6, 8, 11 and 12 when he died -- who adored him. The way he moved on a basketball court. Norman ought to sit a while with that flesh-and-bone kid.

After all, Bernard did. Two scenes in particular haunt him. There was that day before Beethoven was shot. He and Beethoven gave a lift to one of Beethoven's friends, who was being fitted for her prom gown, then shot the breeze as they stood outside the dress shop waiting. "It was funny because he started remembering all these things we did when he was little," Bernard says. " 'Dad, remember when we did this?' . . . We laughing and having a good time, and when they come out, the girl's mom said, 'Ya'll in a good mood.' And we were. We just were."

The moment is particularly poignant for Bernard because it was a bridge back. Earlier that week, Beethoven had overheard a friend's mother saying Bernard was doing drugs. Beethoven went right to his father and demanded to know if it was true. "I told him, 'Yeah,' " Bernard says.

But his explanation, even to his own ears, sounded feeble. A year earlier, at his job as a service worker in Towson University's materiel management department, Bernard had injured his back, requiring surgery. He was on painkillers for nearly a year. When the prescriptions ran out, Bernard told his son, the pain continued. A friend stepped in with cocaine and then heroin. Beethoven was furious, railing about the challenges of avoiding drugs as a kid on the streets. He told his dad that he had friends who were drug dealers, but he kept away. "Because you told me, you raised me to stay away from drugs," Bernard remembers Beethoven yelling. "You're my father, and you told me, 'Stay away from drugs.' And now -- " Bernard tried to grab him and hug him, but he slipped out of his grasp. "I promise, I'll get off them," Bernard says he told his son. But Beethoven had already turned away.

Even recalling this moment 14 years later is hard for Bernard. Sitting on the couch in his living room, he cradles his head in his hands, body bent as he sits grieving, unable to forgive himself.

He wasn't high that night when Beethoven was killed, but not for lack of trying. "I was going to get high, but I couldn't find nothing," he says. He drove around to a few of his haunts and didn't get back until evening. Then he amends his earlier story. It wasn't just that Beethoven didn't want to go to his mother's. "So, it was getting late to take Beethoven to his mother's house because I was running around looking for drugs."

The confession comes out haltingly. "I wasn't high before," he says. "But you better believe I was after."

In December of that year, about seven months after Beethoven was killed, he went into rehab and kicked his habit, but he hates that an argument about drugs was one of the last conversations he had with his son. He exhales, an audible whoosh of breath, to expel the sorrow of that year.

It was the same year his mother died. His best friend died. His brother died, all of natural causes. And then, Beethoven. The only way Bernard was able to get through that time was to invent imaginary scenarios explaining their absences: The military transferred his brother to a new post; his best friend was mad at him and didn't come around anymore; Beethoven went off to college on a basketball scholarship.

It was crazy, he knew, but it worked.

Sort of.

Except, in the case of Beethoven, when the letters arrived: notices of Norman's trial dates, sentencing dates and, most recently, parole hearing date. Year after year after year, reopening the wound.

Bernard developed diabetes and high blood pressure. He grew depressed, and his back problems worsened and required a second surgery. He couldn't work. Diane supported the family with her job as a patient care technician at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center while Bernard stayed home to care for the kids -- and later, one of his grandkids. "Those kids are everything to me," says Bernard. "They pulled me through this."

But the sadness wouldn't go away. "I would be driving the car and hear a song on the radio from that time when Beethoven was alive, and just out of the blue I would start crying over nothing." Time did not heal.

Bernard busied himself with the children to avoid thinking about what had happened. But during quiet moments, he would dwell on Norman. "My mind would be going back and hating him and wishing he was . . . that I could . . . you know, when a person done something like that, you'd like to meet up with them in different circumstances.

"I wasn't doing nothing but killing myself, slowly killing myself from stress and a broken heart."

By June 2007, with his youngest child about to graduate from high school, he was headed for a breakdown. "Sieda was graduating in a few days, and I was sitting outside the school waiting to bring her home, and it hit me." As he waited for Sieda to return with the cap, gown and commencement tickets she had run in for, the Temptations crooned "You're My Everything" on the radio. "Sieda's the last child," he thought, realizing that she would be moving out soon. He began to cry. He had poured himself into raising all of his kids, "but Sieda was the last one. Sieda was the end. I won't have nobody around. Nothing to do ... It just hit me real hard." And then he started thinking about Beethoven, who had died before he could even get his high school diploma, and he couldn't stop crying. "Right then and there, I realized I was emotionally sick and I was hiding from my feelings. I done did everything for everybody, but I'm sick. I got to take care of myself."

Several days later, as he attended Sieda's graduation, he saw an opportunity. William Norman's girlfriend, Linda Freeman, was there to attend her niece's graduation, and Bernard spied her across the crowd. He had seen her occasionally over the years but had never spoken to her.

"Out the door of the auditorium I saw Linda Freeman and called her over," he says. Her family clustered protectively around her. "I assured them I didn't want to do anything." Then Bernard told her he had been thinking about writing Norman a letter. "I want to put this behind me," he said. "We talked not more than five to six minutes. I wished her well."

Somehow, he felt lighter. He started wondering if it was possible to stop carrying around Beethoven's death like a steady ache in his gut. Maybe if he could find a way to talk to the man who had killed his son, maybe then he could find peace. Maybe there was a way to know this man -- and, through knowing, see him as human and forgive.

***

In 2007, when Bernard first reached out to the Maryland corrections department's victim services unit to see if he could talk to Norman, he was referred to Lauren Abramson. An assistant professor in the psychiatry department at Johns Hopkins University, Abramson runs an 11-year-old program called Community Conferencing that is part of the burgeoning restorative justice movement in the United States. Abramson and the program's other facilitators are trained in conflict resolution. While the bulk of the community conferencing cases concern nonviolent crimes or crimes committed by juveniles, the program also has a community component, in which whole neighborhoods are invited to gather and solve problems, and a serious-crimes initiative, for which Abramson facilitates conversations between victims and incarcerated offenders.

Sometimes Abramson's services are requested in murder cases. "There are lots of victims out there who realize 10 years after the crime that they aren't healing, that they are still harboring hate and thinking about revenge," says Abramson.

Abramson warned Bernard from the outset that the chances of meeting Norman -- who was 13 years into a 30-year sentence at the Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown -- were slim. Sometimes prison staff objects; sometimes the offender objects; sometimes the offender is too dangerous or mentally incompetent to participate. But she promised Bernard she would help him try.

Abramson is a big believer in the transformative power of such face-to-face meetings, as are others. While spiritual leaders have long asked folks to accept the benefits of forgiveness on faith, the secular world has lately jumped on the bandwagon -- and proffered scientific evidence to support this view. Everett Worthington, a psychology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, has been studying forgiveness for more than 20 years. He reports that a survey of the scientific literature in 1997 turned up only 58 studies on the topic, but that has grown to a total of 1,000 documented studies exploring the subject today.

Evidence of the potential benefits is piling up: Recent studies suggest forgiveness can decrease your cardiovascular risk, elevate your immune system and reduce your chances of depression, anxiety, anger disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder. Worthington attributes this to the conflicting messages the body sends. "Biologically, we have an immediate vengeful justice motive when we've been wronged, but over time we have a biological urge toward empathy and reconciliation," he says. The desire for justice gives us a buzz, he says. "Pretty much everybody can get aroused and motivated by anger and the prospect of getting back at this person. It is lighting up... those same dopamine-releasing pathways that are in the reward section of the brain."

But at some point, an evolutionary response kicks in, he says. A human who is totally cut out of the group doesn't stand much chance of survival. The others in the group "want to do something to not cede them to the wild beasts out there," he says. "That's when we start to feel conflict and pressure."

***

Buried in the midst of 187 pages of court documents in the Maryland State Archives on State of Maryland v. William Norman is a photo of the crime scene: a teen lying on the street in a vinyl jacket, an American flag on the chest; a white shirt pulled up to give paramedics access to his gaping chest wound; arms splayed; eyes open on a surprised face.

It is an image that even the distancing, dry language of an autopsy report does little to soften.

If you can get past the horror, though, it is possible to piece together a fuller picture of the night in question -- and the perpetrator, William Norman -- from the set of documents. According to the two reporting officers who interviewed Beethoven's four friends -- a 14-year-old, two 16-year-olds and a 17-year-old -- one of them "stated that he and the deceased were walking by a red-and-white forerunner truck, further that they were playing and he pushed the deceased into the truck which activated the alarm. They continued to walk and seconds later they heard gunshots. They began to run." Then, Beethoven cried out, "Yo! I'm hit."

Several witnesses told the officer that they heard nine to 11 shots ring out. The officer interviewed the truck's owner, Norman. "I told him that I was investigating a homicide and asked him if he knew anything about it," the officer reported.

"You might as well put the handcuffs on me," Norman told the officer.

Norman quickly admitted to firing the gun. The only defense he offered during the sentencing investigation was that he had purchased the truck six months before and within 2 1/2 months kids in the area started setting off the car alarm all the time, sometimes several times a night. He had a remote control that could turn off the alarm from inside the house, but it had broken, and on the night in question he had to go outside twice to turn it off manually. "When it went off a third time, he fired shots from his gun to scare those responsible. However, he lost control of the weapon and the victim got shot," the officer wrote in the report. Norman would later say that a window blind had slammed down on the gun barrel.

Norman grew up in Queens, N.Y., where there were several outstanding warrants for his arrest for failing to appear in court in 1985 and 1986 on charges of sale and possession of drugs. He'd also been charged with petty larceny and found guilty of petty theft and disorderly conduct in the 1980s. His mother was contacted before his sentencing in 1995 and explained that she had raised him as a single mother from age 3 to age 16. At that point, she sent him to Baltimore to live with his paternal grandmother. The investigator relayed the conversation: "She reports that her son was a good child."

Norman pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in 1995 but appealed the maximum sentence of 30 years imposed by Judge Roger W. Brown in March of that year. "I believe that I received this severe sentence not because of my own background, but because of the victim being 17 years old and the fact that his family placed much pressure on the Assistant States Attorney and on the Court," Norman wrote to the Baltimore Circuit Court judges. He explained: "After days of having my sleep interrupted, in desperation on the night in question, I fired a rifle several times out the bedroom window with the intent of merely to frighten not to intentionally harm anyone . . . I am not a violent person and I believe that part of my actions were motivated by the harassment that I had received over a long period of time while not being allowed to have restful night of sleep or relaxation. It was an injustice that I should receive a harsher sentence because the deceased person was 17 years of age and had a caring family."

Those words would haunt Bernard for 14 years.

As Bernard toyed with the idea of meeting Norman, some family members discouraged him. "Why don't you just forget about him and just let him do his time," Bernard recalls them saying. "And the answer was, I couldn't. I couldn't because every time my son's birthday rolled around and anniversary of the day he died, I have to think of Mr. Norman." He didn't know if meeting him would change anything, but he was ready to try.

Abramson arranged two appointments for Bernard to visit Norman at prison, but Bernard canceled both. His daughter was sick, he told Abramson; his car broke down. True, but also excuses. "I just wasn't ready, I guess," Bernard explains.

Abramson encouraged him to bring along someone for support. Bernard was no longer in touch with Beethoven's biological mother. He asked Diane. The idea "was torture to me," she says, but she agreed.

Bernard went to the prison intending to find out who William Norman was, as a person, and to discover whether he was sorry for what he'd done. But, as it turned out, there was no room for discovery. As Bernard, Diane and Abramson sat across from Norman in a small, bare prison visitation room, Diane unleashed a fury of anger. "What human being would have that type of gun, an Army gun like that in their house?" she demanded of him. "An average human being wouldn't have an Army gun in their belongings!"

"I just started cussing him out," Diane recalls. "It came from nowhere."

Abramson recalls that Norman spoke very little but said the killing was an accident. Bernard himself was driven to speak only about Beethoven. When he left the meeting, he realized with regret that he hadn't focused on Norman at all. He had recently learned that Norman was up for parole, and he had a month to decide whether or not to speak at the parole hearing.

The meeting had done little for Bernard's peace of mind and even less for his extended family members, who warned Bernard that if Norman was paroled, he might retaliate against him for helping put him away all those years ago. So Bernard asked for another meeting. He was beginning to realize that forgiveness, in his case, hinged on contrition. "This time, I just wanted me and him, one on one," he said. "I was going there this time to see if he was genuinely remorseful."

***

The day before this second prison meeting takes place, Bernard shares his agenda with Abramson: "I've got to be sure he's sorry and telling me the truth."

"How will you know?" Abramson prods him, sitting in Bernard's living room.

"I can't tell you in advance how I'll know he's speaking truth," Bernard says. "I'll just recognize it when I see it."

And yet, when the day of the meeting dawns, a bright and clear August morning, and Abramson picks up Bernard to drive him to the Hagerstown prison 75 miles away, Bernard is not at all sure what he expects to get out of the meeting or what he intends to say. He argues with himself aloud for an hour and a half and acknowledges, "Don't put a knife in my hand; I don't know what I'd do." Only to about-face moments later: "This has affected Mr. Norman, too. Those five minutes ruined his life, too." As he goes around and around with himself, fields roll by, and three low stone buildings encircled by razor wire and gates come into view. Bernard falls silent for the first time, and Abramson tries to throw him a lifeline: "Think about what you want to say, but listen to your heart."

Prison gates open and close behind them. Bernard and Abramson go into the main prison building and then eventually walk across the prison yard into a bare cinder block room.

Norman enters with a guard and takes a seat in a chair directly opposite Bernard. There is no table between them, and Norman, a solid, muscular man with a bald head and beard, is dressed in jeans and a denim shirt and sits very erect, his hands placed downward on either thigh.

"Would you like to start?" Abramson asks Bernard.

"I'm trying to move on," Bernard begins. "Shhheww," he says with an exhale of breath. He shakes his head and begins again. "It ain't doing me no good, this. This parole thing, as long as you incarcerated, it's always going to bring this thing back up to me." He pauses, thinks and starts again. "How can I say I love God but hate my neighbor? The death of my son -- " His voice trails off. "Shhheww," he says, another whoosh of breath. He tries again: "I'm going to talk to you man to man. After the death of my son, I went through a lot. Put yourself in my shoes."

Norman gives a barely perceptible nod of encouragement.

"I went down avenues dealing with this that I thought I'd never go down," Bernard says, and proceeds to describe his deep grief, his drug addiction, the depression, the way his anger was so profound that he would have killed Norman if given half a chance. "If I knew you was in the house that night, it would've been me locked up in here with you," he says. "I'm not going to sit here and lie and say everything's cool, but allowing things to go on this way, it's going to destroy me. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

Norman opens his mouth to respond but is interrupted by a guard barging into the room. "I'm sorry, but Mr. Norman has to leave. You have to stop right now," she says, explaining that one of the prisoners is missing.

Abramson starts to argue -- after all, it is clear that Norman is not the one gone missing -- but Norman stands and walks dutifully out of the room with the guard.

Bernard blinks, removes his glasses, rubs his eyes. Snapped out of the moment he has been anticipating for years, he is disoriented.

Abramson stands and pats Bernard on the shoulder. "You okay?" she asks.

He nods, though he is not.

A prison official says they can return in a couple of hours. Bernard spends that time sitting in the back seat of Abramson's car, furiously scribbling his thoughts on a yellow legal pad in a desperate attempt to name what he is feeling. Ultimately, he decides not to share with Norman what he has written here, nor to share the letter he drafted to him the night before in the wee hours when he could not sleep.

But something about the process -- perhaps he can see that he was chasing his tail, chronicling the same feelings that had worn a groove in his subconscious over 14 long years -- makes him shift directions. When he returns to the prison a few hours later, his head is in a different place.

"I talked so much, I'm going to be giving you a chance," Bernard says to Norman when they once again sit opposite each other in the small room.

There is a pause, and then Norman says what he has been wanting to say for a long time. "I want to express my sorrow, my regret, for not taking the time to think through whatever I was going to do." He tells Bernard that he has great respect for him, for how he got his life back on track after his son's death and continued to be a good parent to his kids. He talks about the ripple effects of the crime in his own life, how his girlfriend moved on, how his daughter did not speak to him for years. She has finally begun to talk to him on the phone, although she still refuses to visit him at the prison. He has not seen her since the day he was arrested in 1994, he says.

"I can see how we're both suffering," Bernard says. And then he asks Norman something he's been wondering about for a long time. "Have you been in any programs here?"

Norman says he's taken several anger management programs and that the best one, called Making a Change, was full of epiphanies for him. "It made me do a checklist on myself and really helped me to think." He explains what he learned: "Because of my level of education, I think it kind of hindered me from understanding how to think well. How to think first -- because I wasn't doing a lot of this before. Just action. And reaction."

"I know you have a lot of time to think, now, in here," Bernard says. "Did you ever feel any animosity toward me or my family?"

Norman is puzzled. He looks Bernard right in the eye. "I always only felt shame," he says. "Never animosity. I knew it wasn't anything righteous that I did. I always felt shame, plain and simple."

"Good," Bernard says. "Because I have to have some type of assurance for my family, won't nothing happen."

"It's not your family that brought us to this. It's me," Norman says. "I hold the burden for that." His words come slowly. But Bernard is patient. "I'll never be able to lift this burden because I affected so many people," Norman says. "It's hard. I don't like this feeling of being shameful for everything, but I am dealing with it."

"I'm sorry to interrupt," says Norman's prison caseworker, who is also in the room and is listening to the exchange. "But I want you to know that I have never heard him express anything but remorse . . . Retaliation is probably the furthest thing from his mind."

Bernard nods his thanks and turns back to Norman. "We are both victims," he says. "I'm not going to sit here and judge you. But as for forgiving you in my heart, that's going to take a little more time. As for accepting what happened -- it is what it is -- I can do that."

Then Bernard tells him that he is going to go before the parole board in December and speak on Norman's behalf. "Even though some in my family are in opposition to this . . . I was thinking, if I do this, then I got to know for certain. Boom. That's why I'm up here looking at you eye to eye." Bernard says that he has been sitting on the parole board's letter for months now and has 12 days left. "I done thought about it, and that's what I'm going to do," he says, decisively slapping his hands on his knees. "Keeping you here won't bring my son back. Going back and forth with the parole boards isn't going to make it go away. That's my moving-on process." He pauses, his face quite close to Norman's. "I know you wish you could pull that second back."

"Yeah, yeah, I do." Norman's eyes fill with tears, and he clenches and unclenches the tissue he has neatly folded into a tiny rectangle, but he doesn't use it.

Bernard tears up, removes his glasses and wipes his eyes.

"Mr. Norman, is there anything you want to say?" Abramson asks.

"I'm taking it all in," he says. "I'm overwhelmed by the position you've taken and that you're fighting against opposing factors in your family." He collects his thoughts. A silence stretches out -- uninterrupted -- for nearly a full minute. "I want to say thank you. Truly. Thank you. Because I am trying as hard as I can to right a wrong I can never right."

The two men stand up to shake hands, but they hug instead. A teary Bernard jokes, "Man, you owe me a dinner when you get outta here."

***

By the time the parole hearing takes place in December, and Bernard and Abramson are once again speeding along Interstate 70 toward Hagerstown, Bernard is struggling with two contradictory images of William Norman. First, there is the apologetic man he met four months earlier. The second is the man who penned the letter to the judge appealing his sentence in 1995, complaining: "It was an injustice that I should receive a harsher sentence because the deceased person was 17 years of age and had a caring family."

"How could he say that?" Bernard wonders aloud. He stares out the window. "Do you think he meant it? Really meant it?"

Abramson tosses it back. "What do you think?"

"That letter was written a long time ago," he says. "Maybe he was still mad?"

"Could be."

"He's had a lot of time to think."

Abramson laughs. "That's for sure."

"I think he is sorry," Bernard says decisively.

The parole hearing is in a different part of the prison than they visited during their last trip. Inside, Bernard's black Reeboks squeak down the long hallway behind a corrections officer.

The hearing begins with Abramson and Bernard sitting in plastic chairs in a small room with the two state parole commissioners seated behind folding tables. Norman listens outside the room over a loudspeaker. "This is not to be a conversation between you and the inmate," Commissioner Michael Blount tells Bernard, intending to forestall the accusations he assumes are on the way.

Bernard looks at Abramson, who nods her head, encouraging. Bernard opens the small piece of paper he has folded into eighths and creased and unfolded and refolded 20 times in the last two hours. He reads haltingly at first, as he explains that he has met with Norman twice in the past, but his voice grows stronger as he continues. "I asked him about his feelings about taking my son's life, and he expressed remorse."

The commissioners look stunned.

Bernard hesitates only a fraction of a second before affirming that he believes Norman to be sincerely sorry. "So it is my intention to ask that Mr. Norman be granted parole and release today," he says. "I hope the board takes this into consideration and grants my family and Mr. Norman some relief."

Minutes later, as Bernard and Abramson are ushered out of the room, the speaker is turned off, and the two commissioners lean their heads in to talk to each other. When Norman comes into the room to sit where Bernard had been sitting, the commissioners flip on the speaker. "Can everyone hear?" they ask Bernard and Abramson, who are now sitting outside the room watching the proceedings through a glass window.

The commissioners grill Norman about the night of the crime, whether he had been drinking, whether he had ever done drugs, whether he had used drugs in prison, whether he had taken classes in prison, whether he had a place to stay if they released him, whether he thought he could get a job with the plumbing certificate he had earned, why he had shot at the kids.

Why?

Norman says what he has said all along, that he only meant to scare them by firing into the sky, that the window blind crashed down on his gun, that he lost control of his weapon, that it was an accident, that he never meant to hurt anybody. He was angry, he says, but he never should have reacted the way he did, and he is sorry.

The commissioners, still reeling from Bernard's statement, point out that the victim supports his parole. "I'm just about ready to pass out on the table," Blount says. "I've been here 19 years and have only heard a victim say this once before."

"This man has shown incredible mercy to you today," Commissioner Perry Sfikas says. "I don't know how you pay this back in the future." He shakes his head.

What if your roles were reversed, and he had shot your daughter? Blount demands. "Do you think you would be able to say the same thing?"

Norman is paralyzed by the question. Would he? Could he? Will his answers affect his chances of parole? He tries to imagine. Finally, he gives up, shaking his head and looking down at the cuffed hands in his lap: "Honestly, I don't know."

The commissioners send him out of the room. Three minutes later, they announce their decision: William Norman will be granted "delayed release," parole that will be granted in the next 18 months, after attendance at some required classes and six months of active work release.

"This concludes the parole hearing," Blount says.

As Norman leans forward to sign the parole document the commissioners have given him -- one hand awkwardly dragging its cuffed partner along the page -- he looks out through the booth's soundproof glass seeking Bernard's face.

"Thank you," he mouths.

Bernard gives a barely perceptible nod. And leaves the room.

Downstairs, the friendly corrections officer at the front desk, who had signed Bernard in and knew he was a victim testifying at a parole hearing, waves him out the door with a smile. "Hope everything went your way," she says.

"It did," Bernard says, snapped out of his reverie. And then again, more firmly, "It did."

Karen Houppert, a contributing writer, last wrote about family coaching for the Magazine. She can be reached at me@karenhouppert.com.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company