Monday, March 13, 2006

Not an easy question

I am behind on everything, particularly posting, but I could not pass up this SFGate story. As some know, I am a detention ministry volunteer at a nearby California state prison. This story points out some key questions about how we both need to and choose to treat those convicted of crimes. Some try to see them as monsters, some as victims and some as heroes in stories like this. It's not that simple, easy, or risk free for anyone involved.

Fair warning -- this is a long one, because I am including some big sections of stories you need to read. This morning, SF Chronicle staff writer Demien Bulwa recounts the most recent event in this story:

James Tramel awakened Sunday in a prison cell. He went to sleep Sunday night in the rectory of a church he will help lead.

It was a day of transformation for Tramel, 38, who is believed to be the first prison inmate ordained as an Episcopal priest. He was convicted more than 20 years ago of murdering a homeless man in a park.
What he did

The first thing you have to do is face up to what some people really have done. This is an extended excerpt from a Steve Chawkins story in the LA Times:

In 1985, Tramel and David Kurtzman, both 17, were students at Northwestern Preparatory School, a school that sent many graduates on to the military academies. Tramel was the son of a former Green Beret and had been provisionally accepted at the Air Force Academy. Kurtzman was an Eagle Scout who aimed to attend the U.S. Naval Academy.

One August night, members of a Latino gang had gotten into a confrontation with some of their classmates. The next night, Tramel and Kurtzman led a group that went out looking for the gang. According to his own account, Tramel egged on his friends, instructing them in martial arts moves. When Kurtzman wanted to bring along the 6-inch folding military knife he would sharpen during idle moments in the dorm, Tramel readily agreed.

After hours on the prowl, the band of avenging angels came down to just Tramel and Kurtzman, clad all in black.

They found no gang members, but returning to school for their 1 a.m. curfew, they cut through Alameda Park, where music wafted from a radio beside a man bunking down in the gazebo.

For a brief time, the pair chatted with him. The homeless man was Michael Stephenson, 29. He was not Latino. Tucked inside his sleeping bag, he was anything but hostile. As Tramel leaned against a railing with his back to Stephenson, they talked about the cold weather.

"Several seconds later, I heard Michael say, 'No, my friend,' and then I heard what sounded like coughing," Tramel wrote in an account for his 2005 parole hearing.

"When I turned around, Michael was on his hands and knees, and Kurtzman was leaning over him. Then Michael suddenly collapsed onto his side, I saw the knife in Kurtzman's hand, and before I could say or do anything, I saw Kurtzman cut Michael's throat. My body froze in horror, and I gasped, 'Dave, stop!' Kurtzman looked up at me with a crazed look in his eyes, and he was trembling."

Kurtzman gave an account at his trial that mirrored Tramel's. Earlier, he told investigators that killing Stephenson was like slaughtering a pig. Kurtzman stabbed him 17 times.

Back at the dorm, the two swore their pals to secrecy, and Tramel promised a skeptic $50 if their story turned out to be a hoax. Their disbelieving friends visited the park later that morning and called police.

Tramel's first trial ended in a hung jury. He was convicted of second-degree murder in the second. Both he and Kurtzman received sentences of 15 years to life.

"The prosecutor made a good analogy at my trial," he told the parole board in October. "Kurtzman was a gun that I had loaded and cocked…. That makes me culpable for what Kurtzman did; that makes me responsible for Michael's death."
I remember this case -- it got a lot of coverage at the time, and became an iconic event for those concerned about violence against the homeless. Buttons displaing Michael Stephenson's last words, "No, my friend, no", were worn by many in the Santa Barbara area as a protest against such crimes.

How to react

There isn't much question about how to react to the crime — horror and outrage at the act as well as sorrow and compassion for the family of the victim seem about right. The real problem is how to react to the person responsible for such a crime a couple of decades later. I have it easy as it is unusual for me, as a volunteer, to know much why someone is in prison. One can guess some of it, just by observing the person and knowing how long they will be inside. But we don't see the inmate's files, so there is a lot we don't know. Of course there are exceptions to this, as some inmates will tell you and sometimes you recognize their case. (I remember my first "celebrity" inmate, at a Christmas Day Mass. I would never have guessed . . .) We deal with inmates where they are now, which is a good thing. You are dealing with the person in front of you, and not your reaction to what they did.

But some people, even rather good people, find this difficult. I remember the reaction I got from one of the very best priests I have ever met when we talked about detention ministry: "I couldn't do that." His block was feeling unable to put what the inmates might have done out of mind, and he thought the overwhelming majority of inmates deserved to be where they were. An honest reaction like that I can understand and deal with, even though I think that some of it comes from lack of contact with real inmates, as opposed to ones you see in movies or in the news.

It's also understandable that people are concerned about whether a released convict is a threat, or wonder about "jailhouse conversions". You hear all sorts of things while inside, and you learn to be careful about what you believe. Inside prison is a strange place, very different from the outside world. To cope, people will do what they have to, and lying to you can be part of that. It's crowded and stressful, but it is at the same time a very structured environment. Adapting well to prison does not mean that you can adapt well to life outside. Unfortunately, there are many inmates that cannot handle either well.

And in the end, past behavior really is one of the best predictors of future behavior, alowing for circumstances.

In this case, Governor Schwarzenegger blocked Tramel's parole in 2004, but chose not to object to it this time. To his credit, the Governator and his staff have really tried to find some fixes for the throroughly broken prison system here, even if the results are pretty thin at this point. The previous Governor, Gray Davis, rarely if ever would let someone convicted of homicide be paroled no matter what the circumstances, and the political motivations of that policy were well known. Schwartzenegger has not been slack by any means, but has chosen to let a number of paroles go through. I think it has been the right policy.

This particular case

As for Fr.James Tramel, time will tell. There are some real challenges ahead for him, considering that he has been inside prison for his entire adult life. (When he got there, he was the youngest prisoner at San Quentin.) Any life change is stressful, and combining release from prison (which is much, much more stressful than you would think) with a new job, and even marriage can add up to a heavy load.

But I think he has some real advantages in this case, some of his own making, and some supplied by God and his people. He seems to have faced up to what he did, and does not minimize that terrible act in 1985. The job and support community that has been waiting for him are very important as well — apparently everyone at his new parish in Berkeley knows what he did, and there has been extensive contact between him and that community in preparation for release. That kind of community and job connection is a decent predictor of sucess on the outside.

Maybe the most important point is that James Tramel does not have a history of being personally violent. He was involved in, and was responsible for someone being killed, and I don't think his sentence was improper for what he did. But an extablished pattern of violent behavior, minor or major, is one of the biggest danger signals. There are many people in prison for minor charges (just what they happened to be caught at) that are much more dangerous both in and out of prison than most murderers. It all depends. The act you are sentenced for can either be the worst thing you will ever do on the worst day of your life, not to be repeated, or the reasonable consequence of the life you have been living for some time. Sometimes therapy can help these truly violent people. Just not every time. Tramel has little sign of being a habitually violent person. Both the correctional staff that know him and the prosecutor that put him in jail agree that he should be paroled, which is very unusual indeed.

The family

Michael Stephenson's family does not agree with this, and that is not unusual either. Members of that family have said that Tramel should never be released, and if he has converted, fine, he can do ministry inside.

It can be easy to say that someone needs to forgive someone else, needs to just let some horrible piece of the past go, in order to put some kind of life back together. But it is not easy to actually do it, and some find it impossible on their own. Even those who make the decision to forgive, find that it is a decision that they have to keep making for the rest of their lives. I cannot condemn someone who cannot forgive such a crime, I can only pray for them. Michael Stephenson's murder was a horrifying act against an innocent person, someone with basic human worth that should never be forgotten. Such an act has consequences beyond any human ability to repair. That some close to the victims do find a way to forgive such crimes only shows that God is present in this sometimes dark and terrible world. These are the true miracles of our time, and those who can really do it are in a special way holy signs to the rest of us. May God in his unlimited mercy grant this family grace and healing.

But should a grieving family have a permanent veto power over a parole? In this case, I don't think so. It is true that so many people who have had contact with this man testify that he has truly changed and deserves the chance for parole. It is also true that they could all be wrong (it has happened before), even though the risk is small. But there is a time to take that risk, or throw our own humanity away. As Christians we have to remember that we are called to a risky and costly path, to work for true reconciliation in this fallen world. To coin a phrase, "Success is not one of the names of God." This is one of those times to take such a risk. I will be praying both for James Tramel and the family of Michael Stephenson.

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