BLOG: Failing to Draw a Line Under Vengeance

In 2003, I was introduced to a man who had committed a double murder. He had recently been released from prison after serving a life sentence and was trying to readjust to a world very different from the one he’d left 15 years earlier. It was the first time I’d knowingly met someone who had taken another person’s life, and I expected to be confronted by someone markedly different from anyone else I’d ever met. But in fact David wasn’t different. He was very ordinary — a broken man, full of remorse, who wanted to make amends and lead a worthwhile life. He told me as he pointed to the boots he was wearing, “these boots are like my life — they’ve been healed, resoled and restored.”

I was interviewing David because I was collecting stories of forgiveness and reconciliation for an exhibition, entitled The F Word, which a year later launched at the Oxo Gallery on London’s South Bank. Among other forms of forgiveness I was interested in stories about self-forgiveness, something David struggled with daily. He didn’t feel he deserved forgiveness from his victims’ families and nor could he imagine ever forgiving himself.

There was very little support and certainly no real work available for someone like David, so occasionally he worked for The Forgiveness Project (the charity I had founded the same year) doing admin work or bravely sharing his story with audiences as varied as serving prisoners to the franchisees of a famous international store. Having recently met his girlfriend, David introduced her to his grim past by inviting her to look at The Forgiveness Project website. His was the only anonymous story on the virtual gallery and she quickly guessed who he was. He told me that after she had read it, she had reassured him that she still loved him and that his past would not affect their relationship.

Two years later, returning from a trip to South Africa, I was met by some devastating news. David had murdered his girlfriend and then, perhaps to avoid another life sentence (which this time would certainly have meant life), had hung himself. It was a dreadful shock for everyone who had been involved in David’s rehabilitation — and that included a distinguished group of politicians, business leaders and prison governors. David had so impressed the prison authorities that ,during his life inside, he had often been wheeled out as a model prisoner with the intention of proving that bad people can change — the same had happened on his release. Some of these people felt deeply betrayed at David’s failure to change.Undoubtedly the belief that bad people were fundamentally irredeemable gained much credibility when he killed again. Statistics don’t mean much when it comes to trying to decipher the reasons for random acts of violence, but actually with David we were very unlucky. The truth is that in the UK, “lifers” (usually murderers with just one offense) are the least likely group of offenders to re-offend once released back into the community.

David’s second offense and subsequent suicide shocked us at The Forgiveness Project. One board member even wondered if we should shut up shop. I felt extremely distressed by what had happened and on many levels couldn’t understand it — but shutting up shop was not the solution.

In many ways David’s story seemed both typical and atypical. Atypical in that lifers rarely re-offend, and typical in that coming from a chaotic, violent and institutionalised past, the reality is that some people make it while others don’t. In the months that followed, I discovered a number of pointers as to what may have gone wrong in David’s life. Alongside a society unwilling to provide jobs for those who have served a prison sentence, uncooperative probation officers and dreadful living conditions, David had also become addicted to cannabis, may well have had an undiagnosed personality disorder, plus, crucially, had developed a keen interest in sado-masochism — a dangerous lifestyle for someone who has killed. Put into that potent mix one critical factor — his girlfriend leaving him — and that was the trigger which set off a sequence of catastrophic events.

I don’t know why the press at the time never picked up on David’s story, but I’m grateful they didn’t. It would have just fed the public conviction that bad people don’t change, that killers are irredeemable, and that a life sentence should mean life. Throughout the unravelling of David’s story, I held on to the belief I’d always held — that some people make it while others don’t, that lives effortlessly untangle once all the props have been removed, and that when this happens, vulnerable and damaged people all too easily snap. Unfortunately David snapped irreversibly, creating yet more victims along the way.

Immediately after David killed his girlfriend and then himself, I removed his story from The Forgiveness Project website. At the time, its place there felt inappropriate and unfounded — David had failed to earn his place in a project that believed in drawing a line under the dogma of vengeance. In time, however, I came to believe that this was the wrong decision, and David’s story was resurrected — only this time with a footnote explaining what happened next. I felt we had to be authentic — because some people make it while others don’t.

The footnote states:

Unfortunately this story has a very sad ending. Two years after collecting David’s story, he reoffended — killing again and then hanging himself. The Forgiveness Project considered removing the story from the website but decided to keep it up. It is a pertinent reminder of how not everyone makes it through.

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