The Night I Forgave My Daughter’s Killer
How a grieving mother put compassion before vengeance, and found closure along the way.
We hoped this would be a once-in-a-lifetime family vacation—camping for a whole month in Montana. One night, at our first stop, our 7-year-old daughter Susie was kidnapped out of our tent. The tent was cut next to where her head had lain; she was pulled out and carried away.
My husband and dad drove to the next town and returned with the sheriff. A massive investigation ensued, while all we could do was to sit at the picnic table and watch, wait, and worry.
Then came an intense and stressful day. The deputies were dragging the river next to us, and every time the boat would stop, lifting its empty net, my heart would stop. I was terrified that Susie might be found in that water.
That was the day that I got in touch with my rage. That night, getting ready for bed, I said to my husband, “Even if the kidnapper were to bring Susie back, alive and well, I could kill him with my bare hands and a smile on my face.”
I knew the kidnapper could be liable for the death penalty, and I wanted him to hang high. However, I had always tried to live my faith with integrity, and my conscience was calling me to forgive my enemy. I realized if I gave myself to that desire for revenge, it would obsess and consume me. So, I promised to cooperate with whatever could move my heart from fury to forgiveness. One year to the minute after the kidnapper had taken Susie, he called me at my home in Michigan. He was calling to taunt me. Even though he was smug and nasty, to my own real surprise, I was filled with genuine concern and compassion, which thwarted his intention to rile me up and then hang up.
During that past year, I had worked diligently to come to a healthier attitude than rage and revenge. I reminded myself that, however I felt about this person, in the eyes of the God I believed in, he was just as precious as my little girl. So I asked him what I could do for him; he broke down and sobbed heavily. Our middle-of-the-night conversation lasted for 80 minutes. When the call finally ended, I was left hanging on to a silent phone.
The kidnapper inadvertently gave enough information to be identified. Eventually he was arrested, and irrefutable evidence was found to charge him with kidnap/murder, a capital crime with a sentence of the death penalty.
But I realized that to kill him in Susie’s name would not restore her life; it would only make another victim and another grieving family.
So, I asked the prosecutor for the alternative sentence of mandatory life without parole. Only when he was offered that was he willing to confess to the murders of a 19-year-old and three children, including Susie.
Using the same mindset as killers to solve our problems demeans our own worth and dignity. Victims’ families have every right initially to feelings of revenge. But the laws of our land should not be based on bloodthirsty, gut-level state-sanctioned killings: They should call us to higher moral principles more befitting our beloved victims.
My work to abolish the death penalty is not what I had ever planned. Local churches invited me to share my spiritual journey. People would say that, if I could forgive someone who had done such a terrible deed, they now knew that they could forgive the problem people in their own lives. In the years since, I’ve been invited to visit many countries, been interviewed by Vatican Radio, and testified to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. Susie’s story has been a gift to all who’ve heard it.
This essay was told to journalist Lynsi Burton.