Photo by Louisa Hext
On 12th February 1993 Mary Johnson’s only son, 20-year-old Laramiun Byrd, was murdered. The perpetrator was 16-year-old Oshea Israel who received a 25 year sentence for second degree murder. Many years later Mary visited Oshea in prison and since his release in 2010 they have lived as neighbours in the Northside community of Minneapolis. Mary now dedicates her time to From Death to Life, an organization she founded that uses healing and reconciliation to end violence between families of victims and those who have caused harm.
I was at work when a caller rang to ask if my son had come home that night and if not I should try to get hold of him. She said she didn’t know if it was true but she’d heard that his body was at the morgue. I was so confused and immediately called my sister who called the Police department. When she called me back she said, “Mary, they said they’re coming to see you so it must be true.”
I must have fainted because when I came round my supervisor was holding me. I don’t remember leaving the building or taking the short ride downtown, but by the time I arrived at my sister’s house they had identified the body.
Three days later I was told they’d picked up the 16-year-old boy who had taken Laramiun’s life. I believe hate set in then and there. Here was I , a Christian woman, full of hatred.
I was pleased he was going to be tried as an adult for first degree murder so when the judge suddenly changed the charge to second degree murder I was mad. In court I viewed Oshea as an animal and the only thing that kept me going was being able to give my victim impact statement. I was inspired by my faith, and so I ended off by saying I’d forgiven Oshea “because the Bible tells us to forgive”. When Oshea’s mother gave her statement she asked us to forgive him, and I thought I had.
But I hadn’t actually forgiven. The root of bitterness ran deep, anger had set in and I hated everyone. I remained like this for years, driving many people away. But then, one day, I read a poem which talked about two mothers – one mother whose child had been murdered and the other mother whose child was the murderer. It was such a healing poem all about the commonality of pain and it showed me my destiny. Suddenly I had this vision of creating an organization to support not only the mothers of murdered children but also the mothers of children who had taken a life. I knew then that I would never be able to deal with these mothers if I hadn’t really forgiven Oshea. So I put in a request to the Department of Corrections to meet him.
Never having been to a prison before, I was so scared when we got there and wanted to turn back. But when Oshea came into the room I shook hands with him and said, “I don’t know you and you don’t know me. You didn’t know my son and he didn’t know you, so we need to lay down a foundation and get to know one another.” We talked for two hours during which he admitted what he’d done. I could see how sorry he was and at the end of the meeting, for the very first time, I was genuinely able to say that I forgave Oshea. He couldn’t believe how I could do this and he asked if he could hug me. When he left the room I bent over saying – “I’ve just hugged the man who’d murdered my son”. Then, as I got up, I felt something rising from the soles of my feet and leaving me. From that day on I haven’t felt any hatred, animosity or anger. It was over.
In March 2010 we gave Oshea a welcome home party organized by my organization and some Catholic nuns from the hood; even some ex-gang members from Chicago drove down to witness what was happening. When Oshea told me he wanted to share his story publicly with me so that he could help others, I couldn’t believe he wanted to do this. He is my spiritual son. It’s not easy for us to stand next to each other, again and again, and share our story but I say to other mothers that talking and sharing your story is the road to healing.
As a child I never looked at myself in the mirror and thought you’re going to grow up a murderer and I’m still trying to figure out how I went so off course to commit such heartache.
That night things got out of hand. I was a 16-year-old at a grown up’s party. There was this whole posturing thing going on. Laramiun was there with his people, I come in with my people and we started playing off our egos. I took it too far.
The court proceedings were a blur. I separated myself – it was just my physical shell going through the motions. For years I didn’t even acknowledge what I’d done and would lay the blame on everyone else. I didn’t want to hold myself responsible for taking someone’s life over something so trivial and stupid. You blame everyone else because you don’t want to deal with the pain.
I realize now that as I was growing up I took certain things too personally. If you don’t forgive people saying stupid and disrespectful things to you then you walk around with this resentment, collecting more and more baggage. And if something grows and grows it’s bound to come back to bite you. For instance I could never forgive how my father’s alcoholism meant he was never there for me. I was defined by my disappointment and bitterness. If I’d had more forgiveness in my life perhaps I wouldn’t have exploded at the party that night.
In prison I spent a lot of time in segregation and for a long time had a face on which looked like I didn’t care. Then one day I had a sort of epiphany and started to look at how I was living my life. I went through a real growth process. Luckily I had started changing and educating myself by the time Mary approached me. At first I said no to the meeting because I wasn’t ready but Mary persisted and when she tried again I was in a better place to hold myself accountable. To call myself a man I had to look this lady in the eye and tell her what I had done. I needed to try and make amends. Whether she forgave me or not was not the point.
I walked in without any expectations and it really put me at ease the way she genuinely wanted to know about me. This was something completely new because when you’re in prison no one cares about who you are.
People ask if I’ve forgiven myself for taking Mary’s son’s life and I think the process of forgiving myself has started but it’s not complete. I also know, however, if I don’t forgive myself I’ll walk around feeling guilt and start to self-sabotage. I have to remember I’m a lot different now from that 16-year-old boy who took a life.
Knowing Mary has made me more humble, made me approach things differently and not always expect the worst from a situation. Even at the times I don’t believe in myself, when I’m being super stubborn, she’s just as stubborn to keep wishing me better, wanting me to make progress. I am more positive now because I have someone in my life who supports and believes in me even though I know Mary would prefer to be giving all that love and emotion to her son.
I have learnt that if you hold on to pain it grows and grows but if you forgive you start to starve that pain and it dies. Forgiveness is pretty much saying I give up holding on to that pain. Hurt people usually haven’t forgiven and have so much pain they end up causing even greater pain.