A loaded gun sits on the table. The argument escalates. A second later, a man is dead. And it was all over a waterbed frame and $96.
On April 29, 20 year old Richard was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his friend, Mark*. Mark worked with Richard out on the oil rigs of Texas. In the months that preceded the murder, Mark had stolen money from Richard, had assaulted Richard’s girlfriend, and had written some hot checks. Tension was building by the time April 15, 1984 came around when Richard was to buy a waterbed frame from Mark. Mark took the money but did not provide the bed frame. For the hot-tempered Richard who described himself as a hooligan at that time, it was the last straw. Mark came over to Richard’s house that night to discuss the situation. Unfortunately, Richard’s hot temper boiled over and exploded into an untimely death for Mark.
Richard knew he was playing with fire that night. He had purposely left a loaded gun on the kitchen table as a warning to Mark that he was ” about to get tail- kicked” in Richard’s words. When I asked Richard if the shot was an accident he was clear to mention that he grew up in the Ozark mountains of Arkansas shooting squirrel straight in the eye. Richard was a good shot, he knew what he was aiming at.
Richard spent his first 8 years or so in and out of solitary confinement due to his rebellious spirit. He went 6 years without seeing the natural sunlight of day. Other inmates steered clear of Richard; his hot-tempered nature branded him with a reputation of a man that was not to be reckoned with. When he was not in solitary confinement Richard was the go to man for your every need. Weed, cigarettes, money, you name it Richard could find a way to get it to you. If he was a hard man before the murder then prison had only made him worse.
In 1992, a prison ministry began 4 day bible retreats for inmates. Richard participated in these bible studies as a way to break up the norm; it was a way to have a little more freedom. I imagine Richard sitting in a circle with other hardened inmates, perhaps feeling vulnerable. He was a man that never turned his back to anyone but in those bible studies he was asked to share the most intimate of ideas- faith. It must have been difficult for him to break down some of those walls but Richard was tired of his “hard living.” He was ready for a new start.
When Richard and I sat down together recently to discuss this time in his life, he continuously referred to an illustration in which you feel like you are at a hole at the bottom of a ladder that you just can’t quite reach. You want to get out but you just can’t get to that ladder. Richard felt like he was beneath that hole and really needed someone to reach down and pull him up.
During this prison ministry Richard experienced well versed Christians teaching these classes but, in his opinion, it seemed like they were totally missing the point. It was clear that they knew the bible backwards and forwards but they still came off a bit stand offish and it was hard for some men to relate to the lofty concepts that were being presented. While these Christians were well meaning, it was the Christians in the group who, in Richard’s words, “fell down a lot” that he could really identify with. It was the people who were honest and admitted that they were not perfect- these were the people that caught Richard’s attention. It didn’t matter if they were well versed in theology. These Christians, you know, “kept it real”. They made a relationship with Jesus Christ seem attainable even for someone like Richard.
According to Richard, Jesus got a hold of his life and hit him like a bolt of lightning. Inmates would comment that nothing made Richard mad anymore. Try as they might, other inmates could not ruffle Richard’s feathers. Richard’s hot- tempered nature had melted into a patient peace, a noticeable difference from his tumultuous prison beginnings.
It was this peace that finally allowed Richard to forgive himself for his crime. Part of Richard’s sentencing stated that Richard was not to make any contact with the victim’s family. By the time Richard had repented of his crime, Mark’s family members were all deceased. Through prayer, Richard apologized to Mark and his family anyways and asked for their forgiveness. At this point Richard decided to dedicate his life to Mark and his family.
From that moment forward Richard sought an education for himself, learned several trades, and set his mind towards being a light in a dark place- dedicating every action to the life that Mark never got to live. The way Richard saw it was that both he and Mark were on a path of destruction and now that Richard had changed the course of his own life, he owed it to Mark to live in such a way that it would honor Mark’s life as well. Richard felt like it was his duty to give Mark a second chance at life in this way. It would be his life-long burden and pleasure to live a good life for Mark.
That might seem like an undeserved privilege- to live a good life after you have taken someone’s life but it is indeed a cross to be carried. If it were me, I could see myself crippled with guilt at the thought that I had taken someone’s life. The guilt would probably weigh me down to the point of no relief. Burying yourself with guilt is the easy way to deal with a situation like this. It is much more difficult to receive the free and easy grace of God and forgive yourself. Richard says, “You have to forgive yourself or you can never deal with the consequences.” That made a lot of sense to me. If you don’t forgive yourself then every time you face a consequence for your crime, such as not having a place to sleep at night once you are out of prison, that debilitating guilt would creep back in and drag you back into darkness. Then all the work that God had done in your life would be in vain and that little light would be snuffed out completely. Perhaps the guilt would be so heavy that it would lead you back to another tragedy, another death. I’ll take forgiveness over darkness any day.
After 29 years and 6 months in prison, Richard was released on parole probably in large part due to health issues. Richard’s heart was beginning to fail him and it was costing the state too much money to keep him in prison.
Richard thought that he might die in prison because of his heart condition, but his heart condition ended up being his ticket out. I find that as a kind of poetic justice; Richard’s heart could no longer be confined to a prison cell. It is especially satisfying to see him on the outside, healthy, receiving proper medication, and always wearing bright colors. Richard loves to wear shockingly bright colors of the highlighter palette. Yes, Richard is a neon sign shining through the darkness flashing “mercy,” “grace,” “forgiveness.
“Do I deserve freedom? NO!” was Richard’s response to my husband’s questioning about how he felt now that he was out. “All I can do is live right and follow the letter of the law and be thankful.” With every blessing, with every lovely thing in life Richard thinks of Mark and strives towards goodness all the while flashing the neon light of his story.
*Denotes that name has been changed.