Forgiving Their Daughter’s Murderer

Photo of Conor McBride and Ann Grosmaire in 2010

Jake Squid’s comments about an acquaintance who accidentally shot a relative reminded me of this stunning New York Times article, about a pair of parents who forgave their daughter’s murderer, going so far to get him a reduced sentence (20 years plus ten years probation, when otherwise he probably would have gotten 40 years to life). The murderer, Conor McBride, was the fiancée of the victim, Ann Grosmaire. (That’s the two of them pictured above, the same year as the murder).

I recommend reading the article, which is long and very well written. Trigger warning for – well, for the obvious reasons, including a description of the murder from the murderer’s perspective which has lingered in my mind since I read it.

The Grosmaire’s eventually sought out a Restorative Justice approach, sitting down in a room with Connor, Connor’s parents, the prosecutor, Restorative Justice expert Sujatha Baliga, and a photo of the late Ann Grosmaire, to talk about what happened. Restorative Justice focuses on amends rather than punishment. (I last wrote about Restorative Justice in 2006, in the context of rape.)

From the article:

When Conor was booked, he was told to give the names of five people who would be permitted to visit him in jail, and he put Ann’s mother Kate on the list. Conor says he doesn’t know why he did so — “I was in a state of shock” — but knowing she could visit put a burden on Kate. At first she didn’t want to see him at all, but that feeling turned to willingness and then to a need. “Before this happened, I loved Conor,” she says. “I knew that if I defined Conor by that one moment — as a murderer — I was defining my daughter as a murder victim. And I could not allow that to happen.”

She asked her husband if he had a message for Conor. “Tell him I love him, and I forgive him,” he answered. Kate told me: “I wanted to be able to give him the same message. Conor owed us a debt he could never repay. And releasing him from that debt would release us from expecting that anything in this world could satisfy us.”

Visitors to Leon County Jail sit in a row of chairs before a reinforced-glass partition, facing the inmates on the other side — like the familiar setup seen in movies. Kate took the seat opposite Conor, and he immediately told her how sorry he was. They both sobbed, and Kate told him what she had come to say. All during that emotional quarter of an hour, another woman in the visiting area had been loudly berating an inmate, her significant other, through the glass. After Conor and Kate “had had our moment,” as Kate puts it, they both found the woman’s screaming impossible to ignore. Maybe it was catharsis after the tears or the need to release an unbearable tension, but the endless stream of invective somehow struck the two of them as funny. Kate and Conor both started to laugh. Then Kate went back to the hospital to remove her daughter from life support.

Like a lot of people, my first response was to wonder if I could ever be that forgiving. I don’t know if I could. That level of forgiveness is admirable, but it’s also more than I’d ask of any person, including myself.

I thought blogger Rebecca Hamilton’s response was interesting:

I can’t talk about the things my constituents tell me. But I will say that there are people who form relationships with their children’s murderers and visit them in prison and actually claim they’ve come to love them. It’s not so unusual as you might think. It also isn’t so appealing in real life.

There is no one more lost and hollowed out than someone whose child has been murdered. They want something, some contact with their lost child, and they are searching for it in the person who murdered them. [...]

The grief-driven relationships that form between families of murder victims and their loved one’s murderer, whether they be burning hate or saintly forgiveness, are always at least partly a response to pain that cannot be borne. I do not take this pain lightly. I certainly do not approach miracles of forgiveness disrespectfully.

But they are not a reason to give light sentences to cold-blooded murderers. The emotions of those family members who are moved to vengeance are also not reasons to give life sentences to people who killed someone by accident, even if the accident included serious negligence or even violence. Murder is an intentional act committed by someone who intends to kill.

I don’t agree with everything Rebecca says; I think likelihood of reoffending is a reasonable things for judges to consider during sentencing, for instance. (And for parole officers to consider, as well). But I do share her concerns about victim-centered justice being capricious.

What do you think?

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18 Responses to Forgiving Their Daughter’s Murderer

  1. 1
    Sebastian H says:

    I’m pretty sure I couldn’t be that forgiving, and I’m not even totally sure I want to be.

    I’m very cautious about narratives around ‘forgiveness’, especially in the context of sexual crimes. It isn’t so much that I see no value in them, it is just that I see dangerous directions that I’m not sure we should risk promoting. I see it especially in the context of child molestation. Especially in religious circles, there are hints at the expectation that if you want to be a good person you ‘have’ to be forgiving. I don’t buy that.

    So it isn’t that I don’t think forgiveness is a good thing. But I do think that discussions of forgiveness shouldn’t valorize it over other forms of victims dealing with their victimization.

  2. 2
    RonF says:

    Forgiving someone who has done you harm is admirable in an individual. But it should not be a factor in the judicial system. For one thing, I can see where a victim’s family might publicly forgive a murderer because they’ve been threatened by the murderer’s gang that they’ll kill the rest of the family unless they did so.

    There’s also a difference between forgiving and forgetting. One can forgive someone but still recognize that they can or even will be likely to do more harm and should stay locked up.

    Last night I watched a story about one of the parents of one of the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. She says that she has gotten over the most desperate part of her grief because her dead child’s spirit visited her in her sleep and spoke to her. I cannot remember if she said she had forgiven her child’s killer or not. In any case, she has switched over to being grateful for the time that she did have with her child and to creating a charitable organization in her child’s name.

  3. 3
    LandnotL says:

    I believe strongly in the restorative justice model, but I don’t think it should be institutionalized for anything but low-level offenses. The fact that the Grosamaires worked hard to seek this out shows that they really wanted it to happen. I worry, similar to Sebastian, that making RJ a normal part of the justice system for violent crimes carries too much risk that victims will be pressured, subtly or explicitly, to participate. And a process that can work wonders with willing participants can be a form of re-victimization if one is coerced.

    On the other hand, I have seen that families of murder victims who avidly pursue the death penalty for the perpetrator never seem to find the solace they imagine they will once the execution has taken place. I’d like to see a lot more room for forgiveness in our justice system, and generally more room for victims and their families to be active participants in the process, however they want that to look.

  4. 4
    meerkat says:

    Some say “forgiveness,” some say “horrifying betrayal of their daughter.”

  5. 5
    Robert says:

    I think that would depend on the daughter. Whether SHE would view it as a betrayal, or as an endorsement of her own value system, seems much more relevant than whatever an unrelated “some” may think or feel.

    During his college years, a cousin of mine was shot nearly to death by a deranged ex-girlfriend who he had broken things off with in a somewhat cavalier fashion (his admission, after the fact). When his father visited him in the hospital, in the critical care ward, my cousin was adamant about one thing: if he died, his father was enjoined to forgive the girl, to not be bitter, and to demand that she receive mental health help as part of any sentence. His father was rather taken aback, but also moved, telling me later that he realized on that day that he had raised a better man than he himself was capable of being.

    (Cousin made a full recovery and as a result of his long experience with physical therapy during that recovery, completely switched life paths and is now the lead therapist at a very well-regarded physical therapy clinic. Ex-girlfriend did some jail time on the attempted murder charge, and did considerably more time than that in a state mental facility; I don’t have details of her life but I gather that she’s doing better now.)

  6. 6
    resident_alien says:

    I second meerkat on this one.
    Sometimes,what people like to call forgiveness is really denial and self-betrayal.
    There are therapists who practically bully and coerce their clients into forgiving their abusers,claiming that without forgiveness,no healing is possible.That’s bullshit.In fact,it’s often counterproductive and damaging in the longterm.
    The rage doesn’t go away,it just finds other ways to manifest itself.

  7. 7
    AMM says:

    For a while, I was attending a worship group in a local prison as kind of an outside representative of the denomination. The group was very into the restorative justice idea, though I never got a clear idea from them exactly what it was.

    However, based on my experience and other people’s experiences, I am very leery of any system which rewards prisoners for reforming, or, to be more precise, for appearing to have reformed. For one thing, my impression was that most prisoners had far less insight about themselves than they liked to believe, or than one might imagine from what they say. This blends seamlessly into their ability to be good con men. And leniency is a very, very powerful incentive for someone who is in prison to do whatever it takes to get it.

    BTW, I’m not saying that prisoners are all that different from non-prisoners in this respect. People in general don’t have a deep understanding of themselves and are usually far better at denial and talking convincingly than actually changing themselves.

    I don’t have a problem with prisoners trying to make amends for their crimes, but it has to be for the satisfaction of having made amends, not because it will reduce their sentence.

  8. 8
    Mandolin says:

    There’s more than one legitimate way for people to respond to horrible things that have happened in their lives. I think it’s inappropriate to proscribe that everyone should respond in the same way, whether that’s “always forgive” or “always refuse to forgive or else you’re horrifyingly betraying your loved ones.” Both stances ignore individual variation and individual circumstances, and apparently feel comfortable dictating “the right way” to victims, and telling them that any other way is wrong.

    I have a number of friends, including a close loved one, who were abused by their fathers. And when they say they have no interest in forgiving their fathers, no interest in ever seeing or hearing from them again, no twinges of sentimentality, nothing but a desire to be removed–or even to see the father dead–they experience this huge amount of pressure to be forgiving. “You’ll regret it later,” people say, “you don’t mean it,” and “but he’s your *dad*.” It’s horrifying and inappropriate and takes a traumatizing experience and adds extra layers of guilt, and extra layers of defensiveness, and a feeling that no matter what you do, you can’t even talk about it, because you’re always outcast, and people will sneer at you. Fuck that.

    It is not any more appropriate to take a different reaction and say “you are feeling this wrong. Feel it how I say you should feel it.”

    This is also true for actions–my loved one does not want to see hir father again. That’s an action. Sie shuns him. This action is constantly questioned, and sie is pressured to change hir mind. And it’s not just “concerned individuals trying to give advice”, but something that represents the social pressures that those individuals are responding to; it’s not just advice, it’s a social “should.” “You must do that” “you must do this.” It’s not okay.

    I’m sometimes skeptical in individual circumstances whether a particular victim is doing the right thing for *them personally* but that’s a matter of responding to someone I know, in circumstances in which I am familiar, not with abstracts of “everyone who experiences X should do Y” or “people described in this article have made the wrong decision because of the abstractions they represent.”

    Ugh, it’s like the “oh, no one should be happy that Osama bin Laden was shot” crap that went all over twitter after he died. You know who gets to decide that? The people who were in NYC and the people who lost loved ones. They can dance in the streets if they want.

    And if you agree with that, then maybe you should wonder why it’s okay to dictate that a different reaction is wrong wrong wrong.

  9. 9
    Mandolin says:

    The other thing is that it’s not like they went straight from “murder” to “everyone dances happily in a field of flowers.” There was the traumatic process itself, and there are twenty years of prison before there’s even a chance of being barefoot among the poppies.

  10. 10
    SorchaRei says:

    I noticed that the article mentions in passing that he had hit her on previous occasions. This was a case of on-going domestic abuse. I shudder to think what her life would be like had he not picked up the gun and shot her. I imagine the pressure on her to forgive him for the hitting because he’s a nice guy.

    One of the parents said they were good people but not good together. That’s incorrect. Good people don’t hit their loved ones.

  11. 11
    tlfk says:

    I’ve seen this article mentioned a lot this week on the internet, although I have not yet read it. Like many, I am not sure I could be so forgiving myself. But I also think forgiveness for many people is tied up with the idea of completely absolving the forgiven person of any responsibility for his/her actions, which maybe is a misunderstanding of the forgiveness process; but this can be a stumbling block for people who may want to let go of their anger in a productive way, but who still want to do what they feel is right by their loved one’s memory. RJ is very complicated, and I share the concerns others have about how to apply it in productive, just ways. But I do think the idea of giving victims a place to process what happened to them within our justice system is powerful.

    I agree with Mandolin that we need to give people space to do their healing in ways that work for them. I do community speaking around domestic/sexual violence, and was speaking about sexual violence once to a night class at a community college. My co-speaker was a young woman who had been raped just about a year and a half earlier by someone she knew. She did not get a lot of support from her friends during this time, but she went forward through the justice system, and seemed to feel okay about how it turned out for her. She was in her healing process, and part of that process was speaking about her experience and cutting herself off from that group of people. She didn’t have contact with her rapist, and had no interest in ever really contacting him again. An older gentleman in the class shared a story about someone he knew who had having been molested as a child, and how this person had forgiven her abuser. He then suggested this young woman do the same with her rapist in order “to move on”. She stood her ground and explained why she did not feel the need to do this, that she was moving on without it. He proceeded to badger her about forgiveness until the instructor stepped in to tell him to stop doing that. It was fairly infuriating. although this young woman handled it quite well. (I might have told him to go to hell, stop dictating an experience that wasn’t his;)). So yes, I would never want any way of dealing with trauma to be considered THE way, b/c the experience of trauma is so personal; the best we as a society can do is offer options to the traumatized, and support for which options they choose.

  12. 12
    AMM says:

    One thing I don’t see mentioned here is how race, gender, and class play into how this story is being presented.

    The offender in this case is white, male, and apparently middle class (or higher), precisely the sort of offender whose offenses people (at least privileged people) in the US are most willing to overlook or forgive, and what he did was what in the US we euphemistically call “domestic violence,” which is the category of violence US society is least willing to take seriously. Does anyone honestly believe Ann’s parents would have been so quick to forgive or that the NYT would be extoling the wonders of forgiveness and “restorative justice” if her killer had been a black man she encoutered on the street? Or suppose that Ann had fought back and killed Conner: would his parents have been so quick to forgive? (Not to mention that women who kill their male abusers are generally treated more harshly than men who kill the women they are abusing.)

    The idea of “restorative justice” sounds nice, but from here, it looks like it’s going to end up being just one more way that the privileged can put their thumbs on the scales of justice.

  13. 13
    Eytan Zweig says:

    The idea of “restorative justice” sounds nice, but from here, it looks like it’s going to end up being just one more way that the privileged can put their thumbs on the scales of justice.

    That’s jumping at a rather far-reaching conclusion from one data point. I mean, I think that’s a pretty reasonable fear, but I don’t see how the circumstances of this particular case bear on it in one way or another – for one, this is so clearly an outlier (hence the level of attention lavished upon it here and elsewhere) that it’s really hard to make any sort of general claim based on it at all.

  14. 14
    Grace Annam says:

    AMM:

    The idea of “restorative justice” sounds nice, but from here, it looks like it’s going to end up being just one more way that the privileged can put their thumbs on the scales of justice.

    Of course it will. Everything which is good in some circumstances can and will be perverted to evil in other circumstances, and one of the best ways to do that is via unwritten rules and structures, because then you can pretend that you’re not doing it, or that it was accidental, or an inevitable price to pay for the good thing (the latter two of which are sometimes true, which is what makes them powerful as cover).

    But ANYTHING can be used to an evil end. So the use of ANYTHING is a judgement call, partially based on probable outcome for the circumstances. I don’t know much about restorative justice, but it seems to me from what little I do know is that it has the potential to be transformationally powerful, in the right circumstances.

    Grace

  15. 15
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    AMM says:
    January 10, 2013 at 7:40 am

    One thing I don’t see mentioned here is how race, gender, and class play into how this story is being presented.

    The offender in this case is white, male, and apparently middle class (or higher), precisely the sort of offender whose offenses people (at least privileged people) in the US are most willing to overlook or forgive, and what he did was what in the US we euphemistically call “domestic violence,” which is the category of violence US society is least willing to take seriously. Does anyone honestly believe Ann’s parents would have been so quick to forgive or that the NYT would be extoling the wonders of forgiveness and “restorative justice” if her killer had been a black man she encoutered on the street? Or suppose that Ann had fought back and killed Conner: would his parents have been so quick to forgive? (Not to mention that women who kill their male abusers are generally treated more harshly than men who kill the women they are abusing.)

    Good point.

    It seems like the point of restorative justice is that “one size fits all” punishment-based justice doesn’t work, right? And that the concept is specifically designed to take account of what the survivors (including victims) and perps are “really like.”

    So obviously, restorative justice will benefit those people who are positively set up by society. That’s because we’re more likely to think that beautiful people are worthy of rehabilitation; and more likely to think that fat people are too lazy to “work off their debt;” and more likely to think that black people can’t be trusted, etc. It’s the same reason that rich famous drug offenders get to go to rehab, and poor ones get to go to jail.

    After all, if you give power to the victims, then it works out great if your victim happens to be an intelligent and forgiving liberal with an ethic of forgiveness and a desire to move on. It’s not so hot when your victim happens to be a sociopathic racist bigot (who is still a victim) who wants to do everything possible to ruin your life.

    I’d remind folks that there’s a constant circle going on here.
    1) First, we start with discretion and wiggle room.
    2) Then, some folks acknowledge that allowing so much discretion and wiggle room ends up truly screwing over a lot of people, usually those who are already disenfranchised. E.g. “Why are we letteing whites go and sticking blacks in prison for 20 years for the same offense?”
    3) Then, we pass some laws to try to reduce discretion (mandatory minimums; sentencing guidelines.)
    4) Then, eventually those “neutral” laws end up ALSO getting coopted somehow (“we’re adhering to the mandatory minimums for each offense. We just don’t charge whites and blacks with the same offenses.”)
    5) Then, we try to fix those by adding some sort of discretion back.
    6) Then we return to #1.

    Restorative justice is a big big step back to #1. It’s one of those things that’s nice in the abstract, and it’s nice when you pick and choose a few good data points. And RJ is certainly better (in limited form) than many of the traditional outcomes. There’s no question that RJ can provide better results in some situations, and truly outstanding results on occasion.

    But frankly that can be said about almost any system of justice, ranging from “restorative justice” to “U.S. system” to “Navajo meetings” to “crowd-sourcing a punishment on Facebook.” There’s usually a good solution for every problem, if you get to pick from a pot of infinite solutions. But we don’t.

    The problem is that we need either

    1) A single system of justice that meets justice, fairness, and constitutional requirements;

    or

    2) A process for selecting between different subsystems, which process also meets justice, fairness, and constitutional requirements; AND ALSO multiple subsystems which EACH meet justice, fairness, and constitutional requirements on their own.

    Restorative justice requires #2, and that’s a lot harder to do right.

  16. 16
    cascadia says:

    In response to the original story and the quote from Rebecca Hamilton, I would like to point out that the Grosmaires cared deeply about Conner before the murder took place. And in regards to the socio-economic issues, it is useful to point out that although it may not be “primary” racism (etc), these people lived in a world where resources and a mind set was a part of their life which helped make the research to bring this process to fruition possible.

  17. 17
    AMM says:

    @14:

    But ANYTHING can be used to an evil end. So the use of ANYTHING is a judgement call, partially based on probable outcome for the circumstances. I don’t know much about restorative justice, but it seems to me from what little I do know is that it has the potential to be transformationally powerful, in the right circumstances.

    The question is not whether it might be “transformationally powerful in the right circumstances.” The question is whether it makes good public policy. And that has to be judged, not on the basis of whether it in one instance makes one family feel better, but on whether, when you turn it into a general policy, its effect on society as a whole is to make things better, by some set of measures of what is “better.”

    This is why Rebecca Hamilton’s objections have to be taken seriously. In contrast to most of the people commenting here (including me), she actually deals with victim’s families, and quite a few of them. She is also in the business of making public policy.

    My criticism, and the criticism that I’ve seen in the blogosphere, is about the pratice of letting victims and victims’ families determine how offenders are treated. In our opinion, this is bad public policy, for a number of reasons, most of which have been mentioned in this thread. It is much better to leave the case-by-case decisions to a cadre of professionals who are objective (at least compared with the victims and their families) and who have much more experience with offenders and with ways of handling them.

  18. 18
    cascadia says:

    In this case, the families did not make the decision, Campbell did. The restorative justice process is about more than just the sentence. Campbell had huge leeway, as was pointed out in the story (by him!) in deciding the sentence. And although the story is couched in terms of 20/10-2nd degree charges vs 1st degree and life, there is no evidence that theywould have ultimately gotten 1st degree charges (Andy Grosmaire works at a very high level in the Florida state government – google it, there is no mention of how this might have skewed the 1st degree mention). As many have mentioned in other places, 20/10 is not particularly light for the circumstances.