In 2004 Cathy Harrington’s 26-year old daughter, Leslie, was murdered in a brutal attack in her own home. It was Halloween night when the killer broke in, also taking the life of another of Leslie’s housemates. A year later, after an extensive police investigation, Eric Copple admitted to the crimes. Copple is now serving two life sentences with no right to appeal. Cathy is a Unitarian Universalist minister, belonging to a liberal religion that encourages people to seek their own spiritual path. Since her daughter’s murder Cathy has devoted herself to campaigning for a fairer judicial system.
“When you lose a child it’s like a nuclear bomb has dropped. Your world becomes a barren landscape where nothing grows. It’s as if all your landmarks are gone and you don’t know where you are anymore. It’s taken me a very long time to find my way.
In the summer of 2004 Leslie was happier than I’d ever seen her. Having just graduated she’d come to live with me near Berkeley, California, where I was finishing seminary college. She got a summer job in the Francis Ford Coppola’s winery and loved it so much she decided to make a career of it. So when I was called to a church in Michigan, Leslie stayed on in the Napa valley.
I heard the news from my sister. On 1st November she rang to tell me she’d heard on TV there’d been a murder in a house in Dorset Street where the girls lived. I wouldn’t believe it at first but then I rang the Napa Police and when they said, ‘we’ve been waiting for you to call Mrs Harrington’ my heart just dropped.
It turned out that having handed out candy on Halloween night the girls had gone to bed. But someone had broken into the house and stabbed both Leslie and Adriane. Fortunately Lauren, whose bedroom was downstairs, was unharmed. The attack on Leslie was so ferocious that the Police believed the murderer must have known her.
I was in total shock. What do you do when you hear news like that? Thankfully Rosemary, who was my advisor in seminary school and a very important person in my life, called and told me to buy an air ticket and fly out to her in California. So I did and Rosemary stayed by my side and protected me during those first terrible weeks.
Leslie had been the outsider. She came from the South, had been a ballet dancer and beauty pageant queen and the Napa community felt she’d brought this tragedy on them. So, on top of our grief we had to deal with this as well as the paranoia of not knowing who killed Leslie. I was distraught and my two sons were beside themselves. It took nearly a year for the Police to find the murderer who turned out to be the boyfriend of Adriane’s best friend – someone Leslie had never even met. When we found this out a weight lifted – I’d always known that Leslie was not the target.
The media intrusion was horrible. Murder is entertainment and I realised very quickly that dead people and the bereaved have no rights. The coverage of Leslie’s story was sensational, vulgar and diminished her in every way.
At the funeral my boys took me aside and said “don’t even think about protesting the death penalty, mom.” I didn’t know what to do because in my heart I didn’t want to play a part in anyone else’s murder but I wasn’t going to put the life of Leslie’s killer above my relationship with my sons. I decided the one person who might be able to help me navigate this process was Sister Helen Prejean who inspired the film Dead Man Walking – so I contacted her.
She said it makes sense your sons would want the ultimate punishment for the murder of their sister. But she also told me that when the disciples needed to make meaning out of Jesus’s death they produced the Gospels, and she invited me to write Leslie’s gospel. So I started to think about my daughter’s legacy. And I immediately thought about how full of love she was and how many friends surrounded her. Sister Helen also talked about the mother of the murderer in Dead Man Walking who’d had to leave town because people were so viciously abusing her. When she told me this it poked a hole in my darkness because for a moment I thought of Eric’s mother and realised that there was something worse than being the mother of a murdered child.
During those early years of trying to make sense of such unspeakable horror, I spent a lot of time living among the poor doing street retreats and visiting the dispossessed in Nicaragua. I found comfort here. If there was a place I could find grace it was in the streets. The Nicaraguans have a saying that you make your way by walking. And that’s what I did – I just put one step in front of the other.
By the time of the sentencing hearing in 2007 my sons no longer felt they wanted the death penalty. We made it clear to the prosecution that we didn’t want to endure a public trial and if they could work out a plea agreement then we would prefer it. At first when we went to court there were two sides and I couldn’t look at Eric’s family across the room but once we started talking about how we could produce the most compassionate outcome for everyone – whilst still getting justice and protecting society – then the mood shifted.
As the media left the court, Rosemary whispered, “Cathy, do you want to meet Eric’s mother.” I was absolutely terrified but when I saw her coming towards me I knew I needed to. She was trembling – more terrified than me. I was stunned by how similar we looked, and thought “Oh my God. I’m her!” Then we just embraced and there was such relief and compassion in that embrace.
After the sentencing hearing we were able to breathe again. We were done. Eric was going to prison and had waived his right to appeal. Now we were left with the task of making meaning and writing Leslie’s gospel.
Two years after Leslie died I read on the news about how the Amish had forgiven the shootings at their school. I said to my grief counsellor, “damn the Amish! I don’t believe or trust it.” I couldn’t forgive so how could they. My grief counsellor replied: “their faith calls them to walk towards forgiveness.” And that’s come to make sense to me. It was a decision they made, but I’m not there yet and the thing that terrifies me most is the thought that one day I may need to meet Eric Copple.
I’ve been in the dark for nine years and it’s getting clearer now. Lots of things in life are senseless. There’s so much we can’t explain but we need to be able to love the questions.