Thursday, October 17, 2013

Moment of Clarity

I've talked about my brother before. But I don't know if I've ever talked about what happened during his trial.

It had been several years since he died. We sorta gave up on the idea that his killers would ever be found. We knew who had done it, but they had fled the state and New Orleans' police was overwhelmed. This was before Katrina, and they were overwhelmed then. Too many outstanding warrants, too few cops.

And then my dad got a phone call. They had caught one of the suspects. The killers. And they wanted to fly us down for his trial. So my dad and I went down.

It was an odd time for me. I was going through bankruptcy, had had a relationship fall apart, and was rebuilding myself. My life was in complete flux.

So we flew down. I saw the guy who did it, sitting in the front row with his lawyer. He looked at me and did a double-take, like he'd seen a ghost. I look a lot like my brother, and maybe he thought he was being haunted. I hope he did.

I stayed for as long during the trial as I could, and then, when they started showing evidence, I left.  I took some time in the city to think, and as I left the room, I saw the family of the suspect. They were upset. Not because of what their son had done. They were in denial. They couldn't believe he had been accused of such a thing.

While I waited for the trial to end, I thought about the penalty phase. He was in Louisiana, which still had the death penalty. Would I accept someone being killed on my behalf?  After all, that's what it was all about. The state was enacting justice - killing him - on behalf of the victims. Me, my brother, and my dad.

I had thought about execution before, and I went back and forth and back and forth. Was it right? Was the death penalty ever justified? What about when it was my own family member? Was it different when it was my own family, the brother I had known for nearly 30 years, who was the victim? Where would I fall? It was a deep and wrenching struggle inside my heart.

I had talked to people who thought the purest form of the death penalty would be to allow the victim's family to carry it out personally against the killer. I thought was a bit brutal. Still, there was truth in that.

When he was convicted, I looked over at his parents again. They were crushed. The reality of what he had actually done - it devastated them.

I made a decision.

I went over to them and introduced myself. They had seen me of course, but they didn't know who I was, not by name. I was just "the victim's brother." I introduced myself. And I said that I didn't want the state to ask for the death penalty. And I said that if they did push for the death penalty, I would do anything in my power to help them fight it.

That was it. It was as simple as that.

I didn't feel conflicted. You think that when you make huge decisions like that, it's going to feel like you're still struggling. It doesn't. It felt like a cloudy day had suddenly turned to blue sky. Once I knew what I would do, I stopped caring if it was the best decision, the most reasonable decision. I stopped worrying what people would think. People like my dad. Or the prosecutor. It didn't matter. Because I was doing the right thing.

The prosecutor was a little stunned. He came up to me afterward and said that if I felt that way, I should have just told him. I didn't really know how to respond. I hadn't felt that way when the trial started. I didn't know until I knew.

These pure moments of clarity don't happen very often in one's life, but they're intensely powerful. It was the closest I've ever felt to following my heart. It was an incredibly serene feeling. You don't know it's going to happen until you know. And once you know, you look back and wonder why it was so hard to see.

I started going to church after that happened. Not because of it, but because I felt like church was a thing I needed in my life. I realized that that moment was something that the church describes as grace. A feeling of giving that is unmotivated by reward. The act of giving compassionately and generously. I let go of my anger and my desire for vengeance, and I accepted that my humanity and the killer's humanity were both valuable. I let go. I accepted that I could let it go.

Sometimes, you won't know the right thing to do until it's staring right at you. And when those moments come, don't worry about what you should do, or what the best argument would be, or what intellectually would be the best course of action. Listen to your heart. If you're right, then your heart will tell you. And if you listen to your heart, it is always the right thing to do.

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