76. Not Guilty

76. Not Guilty

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Forgiveness

Not Guilty

You can’t forgive without loving. And I don’t mean sentimentality. I don’t mean mush. I mean having enough courage to stand up and say, “I forgive. I’m finished with it.”

~Maya Angelou

The bailiff opened the large courtroom doors and stepped into the hallway. “The jury has reached its verdict,” he said. I gasped. The buzzing crowd instantly hushed. The jury had spent three hours making its decision—three hours that, to me, seemed like days.

I gripped my husband’s hand as we shuffled into the courtroom ahead of our two sons and the rest of our family and friends. Sitting stiffly on the hard benches, no one spoke.

“Rise,” the bailiff said with authority in his voice.

I held my breath. My heart pounded. We were about to hear the final verdict. Finally, finally, we’d see justice carried out!

The phone had rung late at night a year earlier. In moments, our middle son Jeff raced into our bedroom shouting, “Joe’s been hurt!” We frantically pulled on the clothes from the day before and rushed out the front door. We arrived at the hospital minutes after the ambulance, but we received only one small piece of information. “They’re working on him.”

It was surreal. “This isn’t happening to us,” I repeated silently over and over again.

In the midst of our anguish and desperate prayers, the doctor walked in. “Are you the parents of Joe Eckles?” he asked.

I jumped to my feet. “Yes, how is he? Where is he? When can we take him home?”

Then came the crushing news. Our nineteen-year-old son had not survived the multiple stab wounds he had received.

I crumpled under the weight of his death.

“These things don’t happen to good boys!” I wanted to shout. The light of my life had been snuffed out. My husband and I sobbed. Questions of what had happened, how, and why mixed with the pain. Joe was the captain of his football team, captain of his lacrosse team, witty, handsome, a leader in every way. How could this happen to him?

I prayed, not with words, but with cries only God could hear as they came from the depths of my soul. I asked for strength, for direction, and comfort.

Weeks crawled by, and perhaps slower than I wished, peace trickled in. And it was God’s grace that sustained me enough to move forward through daily routines. A year crawled by slowly.

“I got a call from the prosecuting attorney,” my husband announced with a somber tone. “The trial will begin next month.”

The day the trial was scheduled to begin was October 27th, which was my fifty-first birthday. “I’m not sure if I’m ready,” I confessed to my husband.

He gave a pained sigh. “I don’t know myself, but we need to see justice served.”

The trial began. And although we sensed the support of our family and friends around us, that courtroom was an odd, uncomfortable place, cold and harsh. We were the victims, and sorrow intensified the unwanted experience. The grief in our hearts blurred the details of the legal proceedings. Each witness was called to relate his or her side of the story. An altercation had caused our son Joe and the other driver to exit their cars. A fight broke out and Joe didn’t know the man was armed with a knife.

“Help me, God!” my heart cried out. “I don’t know if I can bear to hear one more detail of that dreadful night!”

But the torture continued. The medical examiner’s report of each of Joe’s twenty-three stab wounds reached my heart with almost the same force they had entered Joe’s body. Once all the testimony was heard, the judge read the instructions to the jury.

After hours of deliberating, they called us back into the courtroom.

“Jury, did you reach a verdict?” the judge asked.

One of the jury members stood. “We have.”

I held my breath as he read the three charges. Most of the words were a blur to me, but what I heard was, “Not guilty on all counts.” A gasp of horror burst from our side of the courtroom. Shouts of glee and cheering came from the other side. They celebrated his acquittal. We were horrified by the injustice. The man who took our son’s life had pled self-defense and was found innocent on all counts.

The process of picking up the pieces began all over again. The lash of injustice compounded the heartache of his loss. We held each other night after night while my husband and I prayed.

One evening, he paused after our prayer. “You know,” he said with a soft voice, “God may forgive this man. We need to forgive him too.”

“I agree,” I said.

Like a wet, heavy blanket off my back, the heartache lifted. That was exactly what we needed to do.

Once we chose to forgive the man who took Joe’s life, our world changed. The darkness of our pain was dispelled like the blackness of night by the morning sun. We never saw the man again. But had we encountered him, a word of forgiveness would have been extended instead of vengeance or rage.

Through prayer, we had asked God for comfort, but He gave us more than that. He gave us the ability to feel peace.

“How can you forgive something like that?” a friend said to me back then.

My answer has always been: “If we had not forgiven him, we would be the prisoners, trapped inside the bars of bitterness. We made the choice to be set free, to live in the liberty that forgiveness brought.”

In that freedom, Joe’s memories are sweeter. In that freedom, our wisdom is greater—to recognize the gift he was to us for nineteen years. And once free, we invited joy and laughter back into our lives.

That joy is sometimes accompanied by tears. But those tears are different now. They carry gratitude for our sorrow that turned to healing. For the injustice that turned to acceptance, and for the anger that turned to peace.

~Janet Perez Eckles

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