Ten Years Ago, Part 11c: Forgiveness After Your Son’s Death – The Accused, Attorneys And “What is Justice?”

Five months after the preliminary hearing where Jon’s friend was bound over for trial, the criminal trial occurred.  The trial was scheduled to last one week.  My prayer going in was to “just get it over with, Lord.”  That, He did.

As the second day of trial was beginning the prosecutor waved me up to the rail.  He said he needed to discuss a plea agreement with me – very much to our surprise.  Being surprised, I didn’t want us to make any rash decisions and told the prosecutor we would discuss the matter at lunch.  It was not easy sitting in the courtroom waiting for lunch, as testimony was given concerning Jon’s death, including attorneys waving 8 x 10 photos around to show the jury – my head was down when that was happening because I didn’t want to see any crime scene photos. (After the trial, our family was offered the opportunity to see the photos.  Two of our children accepted the offer.  My wife and I did not.  What we saw in Jon’s casket was bad enough.)

The trial adjourned for lunch and we went downstairs to a small room where the prosecutor laid out the state of affairs.  Here’s where the question in the title of this post arose: what is ‘justice?’  Jon’s friend was on trial for three 15-year felonies.  If found guilty, it was possible for him to serve up to fifteen years in prison.  Was that “just?”  My personal take had been that 15 years was too much.  Given the nature of our system, though, that was where things were.  The prosecutor proposed a plea – for Jon’s friend to plead guilty to what is called a “high court misdemeanor.”  Those of us who grew up in Michigan in the 60′s and 70′s were taught that there were two types of convictions: misdemeanor and felony.  The general rule was that misdemeanors were punishable by up to one year in a county jail, while felonies were punishable by more than one year in a state prison.  In the meantime, Michigan created a new category – the “high court misdemeanor.”   A high court misdemeanor is punishable by up to two years of confinement.  The sentence could be served in a county jail or a state prison – in a jail if under one year, in a prison if more than one year.

If Jon’s friend pled guilty to a high court misdemeanor (in this case “negligent homicide”), he would be subject to a sentence ranging from six months to two years.  Again, it would be served in either a county jail or a state prison, depending upon its length.  What is “just” here?  Did we believe Jon’s friend had intentionally, deliberately, killed Jon?  No.  Was Jon’s friend responsible?  Yes.  Was Jon’s friend drunk when he ran over Jon (as was Jon)?  Yes.  Is punishment necessary?  Depends upon your perspective.  Some have held that as Christians we should never be interested in seeing anyone punished for sins or crimes – that we are only to forgive and move on.  Is that the biblical charge?  It depends.  We see in the Old Testament an example of the Lord both pardoning people and holding them accountable for the issue which He had pardoned, with accountability resulting in punishment (Numbers 14:13-23).

At this time I had been volunteering at our local jail for six years.  I knew enough to know that as jails go, this one was considered a “country club” of sorts, as much as a jail can be such.  My wife has a story concerning someone she mentored for a year in that jail which would boggle your mind.  It is also my understanding that things are not so at the current time at that jail.  Once again, what is justice?  What is “right?”  What is proper punishment?  Or should punishment by incarceration even be part of the equation?  Is believing that incarceration be part of punishment seeking improper vengeance?  After discussing the issue with our family and making phone calls to family members who were unable to attend, we made a proposal:  Jon’s friend to plead guilty to negligent homicide with the requirement that his sentence be served in a state prison.  The prosecutor walked the proposal around the corner to Jon’s friend and his attorney.  He was back in less than five minutes saying the plea had been accepted.

Is is curious the reaction we received from the locals in our small village afterward.  Many could not believe that Jon’s friend at worst would serve two years in prison.  They thought we were crazy to have agreed to such a proposal.  The prosecutor had told us he would do whatever we wished with regard to a plea.  If we had desired no plea and wanted the trial to continue, he would have continued the trial.  Our family put the final decision in my hands.  I now have a hint of what a judge wrestles with when he or she is deciding upon how to sentence a person for a crime.  ‘Tis not an easy thing to consider.

The plea was submitted and my prayer was answered: the trial was over, five days before we had been told it would end.  What now?  Six weeks until a sentencing hearing where we, as “victims” under Michigan law, would be permitted to speak.  Forgiveness became an issue there as well.

At the sentencing hearing, there was some legal jockeying between the prosecutor and the defense attorney before testimony was to begin.  It came time for the defense attorney to speak on behalf of Jon’s friend.  What he said was…….indescribable, at least to us.  What follows is from the official court transcript of the sentencing hearing. (click on the link to read the transcript excerpt) Keep in mind this is in open court where they write down everything said.

THE COURT: Do you wish to make a statement on behalf of your client, Mr. ____?
MR. ____: Thank you, your honor, I do.  Your Honor, you know, as lawyers we are always trying to make our truth fit the reality and really, considering what reality we work with, the truth very, very rarely fits. This is a case of a perfect example of that, okay. (emphasis added)

Moments later, he then said:

We’re not here on this plea agreement because the defendant had a witness problem. We’re not here on this plea agreement because the prosecutor had difficulty with the case. We are here because both the prosecutor and the defendant and Jonathan’s parents graced and blessed a plea agreement that allowed the defendant to plead guilty to reduced charges.
There’s a lot of discussion in our courts these days, there’s a lot of uproar these days about how we separate ourselves from God and we separate ourselves from religion. There’s an uproar. But I can tell you today for all people present, God is here today and God’s commandments are here today and that this plea agreement is the embodiment of those commandments. This plea agreement which commands us to love God and love each other especially under circumstances in which we’re angry, especially under circumstances in which we’ve been hurt and harmed. It’s child’s play. It’s simple to love people who treat us nicely. It’s simple to love people who don’t hurt us and who protect us. And the Peterson’s, defined as Christians by their actions, defined as Christians by their words, put their blessings on a plea agreement under circumstances that would have been very, very difficult to do on the second day of trial. On a day of trial in which many witnesses would have accused the lawyer, me, of pure and absolute beguilement, of manipulating and exploiting facts, of making things up, which is what we do. (emphasis added)

We were sitting there stunned.  This attorney just told everyone what many people joke about as being what lawyers do because they are lawyers.  This attorney had presented himself as a Christian.  He attended a church with my boss.  And he just told the judge that lawyers a) try to make their truth fit reality and it very rarely fits, and b) that lawyers – he – make things up and manipulate and exploit facts.  We were dumbfounded.  The judge was not amused.  As the attorney attempted to continue in this vein, he shut the attorney down by saying “This is not about you, Mr. __________.” (A few months later I had occasion to talk to the court administrator, who had worked for the judge for many years.  She said after the hearing, she heard a swishing sound coming from the judge’s chambers.  Swish, swish, swish…what was it?  She went in and found the judge pacing briskly back and forth – why?  Because he was walking off his anger at what the defense attorney had said.  She said in all her years she had never seen him so angry.)

Time for another decision; forgive or not forgive?  There was a few minutes prior to the time when our family would be permitted to speak.  My prepared remarks said I had forgiven Jon’s best friend, which I had.  Now, however, I had another decision to make: forgive or not forgive.  By the grace of God and by grace alone, I forgave.

The article in our local newspaper the next day said the hearing was “highly emotional.”  Indeed it was.  Two of our children spoke.  My wife spoke and then my turn came.  What do you say at this point?  Think back to Part 11a, where we included the video of the father of one the victims of the “Green River Killer” expressing forgiveness at his sentencing hearing.  What I actually said deviated a little from my prepared text, in part because at times I couldn’t see my text through the tears.  The prepared text is included below, including some very personal details about our family that are not easy to discuss.  The court transcript does not reflect my exact words – I received a phone call from the court after the hearing saying the court reporter didn’t get everything I said because she was crying so much during my speaking and they asked me to forward my prepared text so it could be entered into the official transcript.  She was 10 feet in front of me while I was doing it – my tears were such I couldn’t see her tears.

The hearing ended.  The family of Jon’s best friend was there, as would be expected.  Two memories remain.  The first was walking out of the courtroom and a man approaches me whom I’ve never met – he walked across the hall and introduced himself.  He was the pastor of one of the older brothers of Jon’s best friend.  He said, “I’m ______________.  I’m (elder brother of Jon’s friend)’s pastor.  I just want you to know I think you spoke the truth in there and I have no problem with anything you said.”

Wow.  I mumbled “Thank you.”

Then we finally left the building.  The father of Jon’s best friend is standing on the sidewalk with other family members and he is in tears, as would be expected, given the finality of hearing his son being sent to prison.  What do I do?  What should I do?  All I can report is what I actually did.  I walked up to him, looked him in the eye, gave him a hug and said, “You keep on loving that boy.”  Through his tears he responded, “I will.”  We shook hands and we departed.

With all that had happened up to this point, looking back, I cannot imagine having lived life if I had not forgiven.  Over the years in the prisons, I have seen the consequences of unforgiveness in many prisoners and we will review some of that in upcoming posts.  Praise God He was generous in granting me grace enabling me to forgive.  Praise God, indeed.

——————————————————–

Sentencing Hearing Statement, January 20, 2004

Your honor, I thank the court for this chance to express myself.  I would ask for the court’s patience, because it will be very difficult for me to get through this.

It has been 599 days since May 29, 2002.  I have been wrestling about what to say right now for 599 days.  You have heard the pain that some of my family members are experiencing.  A few of our child have chosen not to speak, for reasons that are personal to them and we understand.  Our 19-year-old daughter could not make it here from college today.  Our pain is all different.  Ken and Heather speak of an older sibling’s pain of losing their little brother.  You heard the pain and anguish from a mother’s point of view when Sheryl spoke.  All I can do now is tell you what’s on the heart of a dad whose little boy is dead.

As a parent, you take certain chances.  The first chance is the birth of your child.  When Jon was conceived, Sheryl and I weren’t married.  Bringing a child into our world, back in 1982, when we were both on the low end of the income scale, with Sheryl already having two children from a previous marriage, involved taking a chance.  Before we met, Sheryl had been sexually assaulted and had been deceived by an OB-GYN here in Petoskey into having an abortion.  She regrets that decision to this day.  But she could have aborted Jon, too.  She didn’t.

 C.S. Lewis wrote something about the chance you take when you love.  He wrote this: “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness….It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from the dangers of love is Hell!”

We took a chance with Jon’s birth, just like you do whenever a child is born.  You give your all to that child – that child is a part of you.  But with that chance comes great moments of happiness, and the possibility of great moments of sadness and heartbreak.  May 29, 2002 exposed the dangers of love that C.S. Lewis spoke about.  Burned into my mind for the rest of my life are the words of ______’s mother on the phone: “Jon’s in the ditch and he’s not alive!”  A few minutes later I was told by Trooper Ferguson at the scene that Jon was deceased.  They don’t tell you your son is dead.  I don’t know why.  Maybe “deceased” is supposed to cushion the blow.  It didn’t.

How do you describe the pain of the last year and half?  What it’s done to me, my wife, and our children?  The hole in my heart that will never be fixed as long as I live?  You remember all the struggles you had.  The victories.  What hurts is the creation of memories in Jon’s life stopped May 29, 2002.  I went to a wedding that summer.  One of the girls Jon went to Sunday School with as a child got married.  I sat there crying through the whole thing knowing I would never attend Jon’s wedding.  I would never see Jon’s first child be born.  I would never see Jon and Ian bickering like brothers do, then goofing around together and having a ball.  Jon would never see me grow old.

The things that made you choke up a little when your child is alive now bring real tears.  Jon getting his first bike at 5 or 6 years old.  The bike didn’t have any training wheels.  Jon rode that bike up and down the driveway all day long that day until he figured out how to ride it by himself.  Going to watch Jon at baseball practice when he was 15 and watching him hit a baseball at the Alanson high school field higher and farther than I’d seen a 15 year old hit the ball and see it hit the right center field fence on the fly and realizing that my little boy wasn’t so little any more.  Seeing him so proud of his first car.  Playing the outfield behind him in a church league softball game and watching him dive for a line drive playing shortstop and being parallel with the ground.

Jon was the type of kid who thought he could fix everything.  We always had electronics torn apart in a million pieces because Jon thought he could fix it.  As Jon grew up, he also though he could fix himself.  We talked to him a lot about his behavior.  But Jon thought he could fix whatever was wrong with himself, and fix it by himself.  He also thought he could fix ______.  We tried to instruct both boys as best we could.  One time, ______ said to Sheryl, “why are you lecturing me?”  Why?  My wife and I volunteer in the prisons up in the U.P. and the jail next door.  We lecture because we have both seen the consequences of the actions of men who thought they were invincible.  I have encountered hundreds of inmates, and count over 100 as good friends.  The ones who are honest will tell you that they belong in prison for what they did.  They may not agree with the length of their sentence, but they agree that prison was the right thing.  They also will tell you that being sent to prison was the best thing that could have happened to them because it woke them up.  My prayer for ______ is that he wakes up.  That he wakes up and sees that he can’t handle everything by himself and that he is human and that he needs to do what Almighty God commands all of us to do and that is to fall on his face before God and turn from his sins and turn to God.

No matter what happens here today, the trauma of what we have experienced will never go away.  The horror of what we saw in the casket on May 31st, 2002 will never go away.  We knew that seeing Jon in the casket would be the worst thing we had ever done, but we all did.  It was horrible.  How do you deal with the memory of your 15-year-old daughter hyperventilating and having to sit down twice between the back of the room and the casket because she literally couldn’t breathe?  I hadn’t planned on keeping a picture of Jon on my desk after he died, but that changed when I saw him in the casket.  His funeral had a closed casket because of the grotesque sight of how his head had been put back together as best as the funeral home could.  Your honor, I can’t get that sight out of my head.  That’s why I have this frame right behind me at work, plus another picture in front of me.  To try and have something to look at when that sight of his head in the casket comes into view.  A couple months ago, a patient came into our office – I work at the front desk.  She saw that picture frame and asked, “Are those your boys?”    I said, “No, those are all pictures of my son Jon.  My oldest daughter gave it to me after he was killed last year.”  What she said next makes me cry almost every time I think about it – she got this stunned look on her face and said, “Oh, Jeff..he’s beautiful.”  Yes, he was.

The name Jonathan means, “Gift from God.”  That he was.  In the Old Testament, Jonathan plays a prominent part in the life of King David.  Jonathan of the Old Testament was known for his loyalty and his friendship.  Jonathan Peterson was loyal to _______.  After Jon died, we found out what a good friend he had been to a lot of people whom we didn’t even know existed.  That’s what makes what happened after Jon died so disappointing.  I need to say that I have forgiven ______ for what happened – I did that right away.  I don’t need the anger and bitterness festering inside me that unforgiveness breeds – my Lord Jesus gives me the ability to forgive ______ and let go of the hatred.  But that doesn’t negate accountability and consequences for one’s actions.  We forgive our kids, but they are still accountable.  God forgives us, but we still deal with the consequences of what we’ve asked forgiveness for.  But what lingers in my mind is disappointment.  Jon’s best friend didn’t even show up at his funeral.  _______’s mother and other members of his family did and I commend them for that.  But Jon’s best friend deserted him.  When your son’s best friend lets your son down, it hurts.  I may be mistaken, but it is my understanding that _______ has not been to the cemetery to see Jon’s gravestone, either.  No one can prepare you for the first time you see that.  Seeing your son’s date of death on a rock is indescribable.  Jon died at 19.  I have yet to bring myself to go through some of his stuff almost two years later now.  One thing we did run across was this.  Jon wrote this when he was in 4th grade.  It asked what his favorite age was.  He wrote 19.  If we only knew that Jon would be 19 forever.

_______ may feel that he’s being treated unfairly or too harshly.  Prison is not a normal experience, and it shouldn’t be.  I’ve volunteered enough next door in the jail to see that jail time doesn’t make an impression on enough people.  I’ve seen too many cocky men and women blaming everyone else for their problems and treating jail like it’s not a big deal.  It should be, but for too many, it isn’t.  _______ has what Jon doesn’t – a second chance.  His life is not over.  He has a chance to start over.  His parents can still hug him and talk to him and yell at him if they need to.  We can’t.  I pray that one outcome of all this is that every member of _______’s family AND my own family take stock of themselves and think about it when they take that first drink of alcohol.  The tragedy of May 29th wouldn’t have happened without that first drink for the boys.  Jon paid the price for that drink.  _______ is paying it now.  A crying shame is that whoever broke the law and provided them with the alcohol is still out there, probably still providing, and some other people will end up in this court someday before you, Judge Johnson, because they were not held accountable.

That patient of ours was right – Jon was beautiful.  CS Lewis was right – the only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from the dangers of love is Hell.  We were blessed with Jon for 19 years and 309 days.  The reason it hurts so much is that we loved him so much.  I’ll take that chance any day.  19 years and 309 days of love in exchange for the pain I’ll feel the rest of my life.  A lot of people have talked to us about closure.  Closure isn’t in my vocabulary.  No matter how you try to soften it or mold it, the root word of closure is still “close.”  I can’t close off that part of my heart that is empty because of Jon’s death and I don’t want to.

Your honor, when people ask me how many children I have, my answer is the same as before May 29, 2002.  I have six children.  One is dead, though.  Jon is my son and always will be.  He was no perfect angel – we certainly had our disagreements.  But that doesn’t mean he deserved to die the way he did.  14 people sat over there [the jury box] and saw the carnage of May 29, 2002.   I can’t bring myself to see the pictures they saw.  The vision of Jon in the casket is bad enough.  He was cold.  So cold.  But I just had to touch him and hold him because he’s my boy.  He always will be.  May 29, 2002, Jon’s future stopped.  No more memories to be created.  Kendall still has that chance.  He can change his ways.  He can still make a difference.  Jon is 19 forever.  I trust the Lord God in that I believe He has everything under His control, but God made Moms and Dads and brothers and sisters to love each other, and I don’t think God minds when I cry.  But it just hurts so much.  Thank you.

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