Photography by Brian Moody
In 2005 Mary Foley’s 15-year-old daughter, Charlotte, was murdered during a birthday party in East London. In February 2006, 18-year-old Beatriz Martins-Paes was jailed for life for the unprovoked attack. A year later, Mary received a letter from Beatriz.
It was in the early hours of Sunday morning that the police rang to tell me Charlotte had been stabbed. It was like being catapulted into a different world, but still death was the last thing on my mind. Even at the hospital, when I saw all these young people distraught and sobbing, it still didn’t sink in. It was only when three doctors came into the room that I knew something terrible had happened. ‘I’m so sorry, Mrs Foley,’ one said, ‘but we couldn’t save her.’
I didn’t know what to do. I immediately went hot. I walked up and down the corridor of the hospital. I couldn’t believe it. For the days that followed I couldn’t function. People came to the house but I felt paralysed. I wasn’t sure any of it was real.
Finally, after two weeks, it sunk in that Charlotte didn’t just die; she had been murdered. Murdered by Beatriz Martins-Paes. But then I began hearing rumours that it was another girl’s fault – a girl who was supposed to have been at the party but never turned up. This girl had an ongoing feud with Beatriz and had made arrangements to have it out with her at the party.
So Beatriz had come armed with two knives; all hyped up, smoking weed and ready to do damage. Unfortunately it was Charlotte who felt Beatriz’s wrath.
For the first few days I didn’t think about forgiveness. I just thought about my baby, Charlotte, not knowing she was going to be stabbed that night, and me not being there to hold her in my arms. It was very hard to swallow. I had so much hope for Charlotte. She was growing up into a beautiful young lady who wanted to be a social worker and work with young people. All her future promise had been snatched away in an instant.
Two weeks after Charlotte’s death – during which time I prayed and held onto my faith, receiving comfort and support from Christ and from my husband – God gave me the strength and grace to forgive. I didn’t say anything to my family at that time because I felt they may not have understood. When I eventually told my husband, he said, ‘I’m going to get there too one day’. But for myself I knew that if I didn’t forgive, anger and bitterness would turn me into a person Charlotte would not have liked. A person that none of my family or friends would have liked, for that matter.
At first forgiveness was about freeing me, because without forgiveness I felt I would have ended up a prisoner. I didn’t think much about the perpetrator. It was only in court, when I heard about the physical domestic abuse Beatriz’s mother encountered, and about Beatriz herself being exposed to that violence, that I started to feel some compassion for her and to understand why she might have done what she did. But there is still no excuse for her: she had a choice and she alone made that choice.
Forgiveness relieved me of a burden I didn’t want to carry. It has allowed me to use what had happened to Charlotte to educate young people about the consequences of carrying a knife for protection.
Some months after the trial, Beatriz wrote to me saying she was very sorry and that she didn’t mean to kill Charlotte. She said it had been a moment of madness. I was pleased to receive the letter and wrote back telling her I’d forgiven her. Later she sent a 14-page letter with more detail about her life and asking me about Charlotte. I was struck that both these girls had shared similar concerns and insecurities. So I wrote back again, this time telling her all about my beautiful daughter.
It was nearly a year before the next letter came, and this one was different. In it Beatriz said that I was the only person who could help her. It was a real cry for help – a desperate letter. She’s obviously carrying so much pain and guilt. I now feel ready to meet Beatriz. It would help me and I also think it would help her find closure. She’ll be in her thirties when she finally gets out and I’d love her to have a great career and a positive mindset. Most of all I’d love her to value her life and the lives of others.
Some people tell me I’m brave and strong, but others don’t say much. Although no one has come up to me and said, ‘you can’t have loved your daughter to forgive her killer’, I’m sure that’s what they think at times. And I understand that, because some people are disgusted by the very idea of forgiveness. It can seem like an act of betrayal. But, on the contrary, I think it’s an act of freedom.