Tuesday afternoon I saw something as beautiful as it was rare.  I sat at counsel table while my colleague represented her client as he pleaded guilty to two counts of murder.  By the time the plea was over I had witnessed true forgiveness and it was jaw dropping.

First, the prosecutor gave the state’s version of the facts: The defendant went to a party at a motel room at the invitation of two women- young mothers who had their faults with which they struggled. They stayed there for hours together and as the defendant was leaving an argument erupted about money.  That is when 28 year old Terrence Thomas shot both women in the head, one after the other. They died in that motel room.

When it was his turn to speak Mr. Thomas spoke his words in staccato.  There was a disconnect between the way he spoke and the meaning of his words but his sincerity prevailed over the lurching delivery.  He apologized, admitted he was to blame, admitted his faults, and recognized the pain he caused. He didn’t shy away from his choices and actions one bit. Throughout his speech he was courageous and sensitive.

As he spoke his insight surprised me. I was happy for him, but I wished he would stop.  I was afraid he would talk about how unfortunate this was for him but he never did.  I have been a public defender for almost five years and I can count on one hand the number of times someone has so fully owned responsibility for their deeds.  Admitting guilt and apologizing is something that seems difficult for human beings to do.  Infinitely moreso when facing all that regret, shame, and time in prison. 

Next, three representatives from the families of the victims spoke.  In turn they expressed their forgiveness.  True forgiveness.  There were no words spoken in anger.  Not one.  I have heard the words “I forgive you” spoken through clenched teeth and most likely for posterity or to gain the approval of their community- whiteknuckled.  This was not that.  They asked that Mr. Thomas one day explain exactly what happened in that hotel room, that he remember the children left behind, and that he pray for them.  Simple, eloquent.  Throughout, my jaw hung loose, emotion welled up from my chest, and surged through my face. It appeared as though everyone in the courtroom was experiencing the same phenomenon. Something as rare as it was beautiful.  True forgiveness.

I don’t know if I could be that forgiving, I hope I will never know. Too often I curse the lack of true forgiveness within the criminal justice system. But even on bad days something beautiful can happen. Forgiveness cannot erase the sorrow for anyone but it will leave something to cherish- an experience of the potential of the human being beautifully fulfilled.  This experience will lift me up until the next moment arrives.  Share these moments with your colleagues as you experience them- maybe it’ll lift them up too.