Democracy Dies in Darkness

Acts of Faith

Why this father hugged the man who helped kill his son

November 10, 2017 at 6:45 AM

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On Nov. 7, a courtroom in Lexington, Ky was filled with tears after a father hugged and forgave his son's killer. (Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

Abdul-Munim Sombat Jitmoud sat in a Kentucky courtroom Tuesday, more than 2 1/2 years after his son was killed while delivering a Pizza Hut order.

In a few moments, a judge would at last sentence the man complicit in the killing of Jitmoud’s son, Salahuddin.

But before she could, Jitmoud shocked the courtroom by extending his forgiveness to Trey Alexander Relford, who had pleaded guilty to his involvement in the slaying.

“Forgiveness is the greatest gift of charity in Islam,” Jitmoud, 66, said on the witness stand.

Teary-eyed after the father’s gesture, Fayette County Circuit Judge Kimberly Bunnell called for a break in the hearing.

When court resumed, Relford apologized to Jitmoud for his son’s death.

Then the father and the convict hugged, Relford wiping his face with tissues as Jitmoud wrapped his arms around the 24-year-old. 

Members of the Relford and Jitmoud families, sobbing, joined the pair for a group hug. The courtroom audience watched, transfixed.

Jitmoud whispered to Relford that he should embrace Islam during his time in prison.

“Don’t worry, it’s over, you have a new chapter in life,” Jitmoud told Relford. “A new beginning. You have to go and do righteous deeds, and you can start in the confinement. When you come out in the real world in 31 years, you’ll prepare yourself to be a productive person.”

On Thursday, Jitmoud told The Post that Relford “was really astonished by this. I don’t think [the family] came prepared to hear this.”

After all of that, Relford was sentenced to serve more than three decades in prison — 31 years for complicity in murder, complicity to robbery and attempted tampering with evidence.

Related: [This lawmaker isn’t sure that God exists. Now, he’s finally decided to tell people.]

Relford denies killing Jitmoud himself, but Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Kathy Phillips told the Lexington Herald-Leader that Jitmoud’s forgiveness “doesn’t change responsibility.”

“He set up the robbery, he provided the knife, he tampered with evidence, and he is the one who ate the pizza afterward,” she said.

In April 2015, authorities say 22-year-old Salahuddin Jitmoud was delivering for Pizza Hut at a Lexington, Ky., apartment complex when he was fatally stabbed and robbed.

Prosecutors say Relford, along with two other men who weren’t indicted, called pizza delivery restaurants and stalked different drivers before zeroing in on Jitmoud, the Herald-Leader reported.

Because Jitmoud’s son was Muslim, the slaying rattled Lexington’s large Muslim community, which wondered whether the killing was a hate crime.

Police have said there is no evidence that that was the case.

Abdul-Munim Sombat Jitmoud lives in Thailand. He served for years as the principal of several Islamic schools across the United States, including Lexington Universal Academy and Al-Salam Day School in St. Louis; he retired from the Missouri school a few months ago, he said.

In extending his forgiveness while on the witness stand, he told Relford he wasn’t angry at him; instead, he said he was angry at the Devil, citing the teachings of the Koran.

“I don’t blame you, I blame the Devil, who misguided you to do such a horrible crime,” he said in court.

Afterward, Relford’s mother, Gail Coote Bird, was called to the witness stand. She spoke of her son’s history with drugs and acknowledged that the Jitmoud family had agreed to a plea deal so that her son would avoid a possible death penalty, according to the Herald-Leader.

Jitmoud told The Post that Bird thanked him for comforting her family, and was touched by Jitmoud’s kindness. She gave him her email address, he said, telling him she wanted to learn more about Islam.

When it was Relford’s turn to speak, he stood up and addressed Jitmoud directly, wiping his eyes on the collar of his prison uniform.

“I do applaud you because it takes a powerful man to know that someone has hurt them and to get up there and say what you just said,” Relford said, according to the Herald-Leader. “I can’t imagine the hurt, the pain.”

He added: “Thank you for your forgiveness.”

Read more: 

‘Each one of us forgives the killer’: A family’s tribute to a slain father

When a Muslim doctor arrived in a rural Midwestern town, “it felt right.” But that feeling began to change

Marwa Eltagouri was a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post. She left The Post in 2018. She previously worked as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, where she covered crime, immigration and neighborhood change.

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