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To Forgive, Divine

There's a fascinating story unfolding in New Hampshire right now.

In 1991, a very troubled teenager named Shane Pitts was saying goodbye to his very troubled teenage girlfriend. Melody Derosia-Waters was pregnant and using drugs, and was preparing to leave the state for both rehab and to have their baby someplace safer for her.

Instead, Pitts killed her.

Three months later, he was arrested. And nine months after that, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to 40 years to life.

Fast-forward to today. Pitts is now 35, and seeking parole. He says he has nothing but regrets for his actions. And among those championing his release is a woman named Lylah Rose Goldwater, who has spent a great deal of time with him in the last few years. They have exchanged letters, phone calls, and met several times. They are even collaborating on a book about the case.

Goldwater has been intimately involved in Pitts' case literally from before the outset. She attended every day of his trial. Indeed, one day at the trial she sat in her car with a loaded gun and planned on shooting Pitts himself for what he did.

For what he did to her daughter.

That's right. The biggest backer of Pitts' release is the mother of his victim, who freely admits that she was within seconds of trying to kill him just like he killed her little girl.

It brings up a fascinating philosophical argument. Just how much weight should our justice system give the victim -- or, as in this case, the victim's next of kin -- over the punishment of criminals?

I think our system has it just about right.

When Shane Pitts was convicted, the case was not "the estate of Melody Derosia-Waters vs. Shane Pitt." It was "The State Of New Hampshire vs. Shane Pitt." The idea is that certain crimes are committed against the state, and it is the state's duty to carry out justice. And it is the state, not the victim, that has say in how these crimes are prosecuted.

I agree with this for many reasons.

First, it takes a tremendous burden off the victim. In other countries (Saudi Arabia comes to mind), it's commonplace to "buy" your way out of trouble. In certain circumstances, if you kill someone, you can get the charges dropped with the consent of the victim's family. (This is usually achieved with infusions of large amounts of cash.) Further, sometimes money is unnecessary, and is replaced with threats of retaliation. In either case, justice takes a back seat to the self-interest of the victim and their family -- and killers learn that they can literally get away with murder if they simply have the resources to make it go away.

Second, even if the victims are not subjected to bribes or threats, they still can be prey to undue influence. Outside parties can press them, making moral arguments for revenge or mercy.

It's simply not their place to make this decision. They have enough to deal with; we, as a society, should take this out of their hands and let them put their attention into recovering from the injury they have sustained.

No, we need a (theoretically) impartial, professional judicial system to make these judgments. We, as a society, should resolve these violations of our rules.

I first realized this fundamental precept in -- of all places -- a 1988 presidential debate. Michael Dukakis was asked if his opposition to the death penalty would be affected if his wife was raped and murdered. Dukakis shrugged off the emotionally-charged question and repeated, in his passionless drone, that no, it wouldn't.

The instant the question was uttered, I had my own answer ready.

"You're damned right it would. I would want the scum put do death, in the slowest and most painful manner possible. And I'd want to do it myself, so I caould see him suffering like he made my wife suffer.

"And that is precisely why we don't do it that way in this country.

"We have a system of justice, not revenge. We have decided that, as a society, we will collectively redress crimes and decide how people should be punished. The affect on the victims certainly plays a role, and well it should, but it is never up to the victims to set the punishment. That would run the risk of turning justice into vengeance, and that is far, far too high a price to inflict on people who are already suffering. And I believe, with every fiber of my being, that that is the right way to do things.

"So yes, in the depths of my grief and in the passion of the moment, I would most likely cast aside my fundamental opposition to the death penalty and demand that my wife's killer be executed. But I also believe that later, as reason returned, I would regret that and return to my previous beliefs.

"And if I had to know that, during that brief time, I had been responsible for the death of another human being -- even one who had done such a heinous thing -- I would have to live with that burden for the rest of my life. I would have to live with the knowledge that not only had that man raped and murdered my wife, but he had also manipulated me into violating one of my own most sacred moral tenets. And I don't know if I could live with that. And that is why I am so absolutely grateful that our system of justice doesn't work that way."

If Dukakis had managed to say something like that, he very well might have won more than ten states. (Personally, I'm incredibly relieved he didn't, and so should everyone else be.)

As much as I feel for Ms. Goldwater, I can't say I want her wishes to be the determining factor in whether or not Mr. Pitts gets released. Her words should certainly be taken into account by the parole board, but far more weight should be given to Mr. Pitts' own actions in the past several years. Contrition like he claims to feel can be faked (and often is), but it's a hard thing to sustain for years on end. If there is, indeed, compelling evidence that he has changed and deeply regrets his actions (and not merely that he was caught) and wishes to atone for his horrific crime, then perhaps he should be released. The original judge certainly thought that was a possibility -- that's why he was not sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

But he should not be released simply on the say-so of his victim's mother. While I am glad for her that she has found peace with her daughter's murder -- and, oddly enough, her murderer -- it simply is not her place to grant him absolution.

And it should not be.


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Comments (11)

"...it simply is not her... (Below threshold)

"...it simply is not her place to grant him absolution."

... on the behalf of society. Personal forgiveness for an evil deed committed against one's self is a noble thing. But Mr. Pitts' crime was also committed against an entire society. When people are committed to prison, it's not only for punishment for the individual for the crime, but to protect society from the possibility of them doing it again to someone else - at east until it is deemed that they are no longer a danger by a panel with no personal interest in the matter.

What I find odd too in the story is Shayne's claim that someone slipped him drugs. And further down the mother's claim that someone slipped her drugs. Lotta drug slipping going on there. His admitting the regular use of drugs too - but not that day - that day someone 'slipped' him drugs. I just find that interesting.

And I had no idea they did that in Saudi Arabia.

I agree Jay. If he is now ... (Below threshold)

I agree Jay. If he is now paroled due to the mother's feelings of forgiveness, to be consistent the State would have had to be sympathetic to the mother's feelings if she had shot him back when.

I too agree with you on thi... (Below threshold)

I too agree with you on this one JT. Redemption and forgiveness are incredible to watch when they happen - I have some personal experience in that regard. But it must be the State that has the final say when it comes to it.

People like this woman who have the capacity to forgive are truly good people and I think will be rewarded by God.

This may sound heartless, b... (Below threshold)
Son Of The Godfather:

This may sound heartless, but it's how I feel.

The only person who should be able to grant (earthly) absolution is the person ("people" since she was pregnant) he killed.

Repenting is wonderful, and may save your immortal soul, but IMHO you must still be held to earthly standards and punishments. The deceased may have any number of people vouching about how the guy was reformed... but it is not necessarily the deceased persons opinion.

Well said... (Below threshold)

Well said

It may not be easy to fake ... (Below threshold)

It may not be easy to fake contrition for years on end, but for the brief visiting periods allowed prisoners? No problem for your average sociopath.

Lylah Goldwater's decision-making resources here are highly suspect. She has gone from one emotional extreme to the other even though the facts of the matter have not changed. I wouldn't pay more than cursory attention to her opinion on the matter unless backed up by independent, objective facts.

I agree with your sentiment... (Below threshold)
Dudley HSarp:

I agree with your sentiments.

Along those lines.

The Sin of Forgiveness
by Dennis Prager
Wall Street Journal, December 15, 1997

The bodies of the three teenage girls murdered by a fellow student at Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky., were not yet cold before the students of the Christian prayer group that was shot at announced, "We forgive you, Mike," referring to Michael Carneal, 14, the murderer.

This immediate and automatic forgiveness is not surprising.

Over the past generation, the idea that a central message of Christianity is to forgive everyone who commits evil against anyone, no matter how great and cruel and whether or not the evildoer repents, has been adopted by much of Christendom.

The number of examples is almost as large as the number of heinous crimes. But one other recent example stands out.

In August, the pastor at a Martha's Vineyard church service attended by the vacationing President Clinton announced that it was the the duty of all Christians to forgive Timothy McVeigh, the murderer of 168 Americans. "I invite you to look at a picture of Timothy McVeigh and then forgive him," the Rev. John Miller said in his sermon. "I have, and I ask you to do so."

The pastor acknowledged: "Considering what he did, that may be a formidable task. But it is the one that we as Christians are asked to do."

Though I am a Jew, I believe that a vibrant Christianity is essential if America's moral decline is to be reversed and that despite theological differences, there is indeed a Judeo-Christian value system that has served as the bedrock of American civilization. For these reasons I am appalled and frightened by this feel-good doctrine of automatic forgiveness.

This doctrine undermines the moral foundations of American civilization because it advances the amoral notion that no matter how much you hurt other people, millions of your fellow citizens will immediately forgive you. This doctrine destroys Christianity's central moral tenets about forgiveness - that forgiveness, even by God, is contingent on the sinner repenting, and that it can only be given to the sinner by the one against whom he sinned.

These tenets are unambiguously affirmed in Luke 17:3-4: "And if your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if seven times of the day he sins against you, and seven times of the day turns to you saying, I repent, you shall forgive him."

This flies in the face of what passes for Christianity these days - the declaration, often repeated, that "It is the Christian's duty to forgive just as Jesus forgave those who crucified him." Of course, Jesus asked God to forgive those who crucified him. But Jesus never asked God to forgive those who had crucified thousands of other innocent people - presumably because he recognized that no one has the moral right to forgive evil done to others.

You and I have no right, religiously or morally, to forgive Timothy McVeigh or Michael Carneal; only those they sinned against have that right - and those they murdered are dead and therefore cannot forgive them. (Indeed, that is why I believe that humans cannot forgive a murderer.) If we are automatically forgiven no matter what we do - even if we do not repent, why repent? In fact, if we forgive everybody for all the evil they do to anybody, God and his forgiveness are entirely unnecessary. Those who forgive all evil done to others have substituted themselves for God.

When confronted with such arguments, some callers to my radio show offered another defense: "The students were not forgiving Carneal for murdering the three students," these callers argued, "they were forgiving him for the pain he caused them." Let us summarize this argument: You murder my classmates, and the next day I announce that I forgive you for the pain you caused me! That such self-centered thinking masquerades as a religious ideal is a good example of the moral disarray in much of religious life.

Some people have a more sophisticated defense of the forgive-everyone-everything doctrine: Victims should be encouraged to forgive all evil done to them because doing so is psychologically healthy. It brings "closure." This, too, is selfishness masquerading as idealism: "Though you do not deserve to be forgiven, and though you may not even be sorry, I forgive you because I want to feel better."

The rise of the theology of automatic "forgiveness" is only one more sign of the decline of traditional religiosity and morality. As Yale Prof. David Gelernter, who was severely injured by the Unabomber, notes in his thoughtful recent book, "Drawing Life," the 1960's made making moral judgments the greatest sin. He points out that none of his pre-1975 dictionaries contains the word "judgmental." Today, judging evil is widely considered worse than doing evil.

Until West Paducah, I believed that Christians will lead America's moral renaissance. Though I still believe that - many Christians are repulsed by the demoralization and dumbing down of religion - the day those students, with the support of their school administration, hung out that sign I became less sanguine. If young Christians have inherited more values from the '60s culture than from their religion, where can we look for help?

Mr. Prager, host of a daily radio talk show in Los Angeles, is the author of "Happiness is a Serious Problem," from Harper Collins.

You know, if someone did th... (Below threshold)
Sean P:

You know, if someone did this to my daughter I might do the exact same thing Goldwater is doing right now in trying to get her daughters murder released. And when he was parolled and suddenly disappears for good, well, any of you seen "In the Bedroom"?

No, is it really awesome re... (Below threshold)

No, is it really awesome revenge porn?

"Forever nineteen"Me... (Below threshold)
Lylah Rose Goldwater:

"Forever nineteen"
Melody Starr Waters
8/29/1971 to 1/11/1991
My forgiveness is not for the crime of the murder. I certainly do not think that it is my place--
{this belongs only to God.} It is because, I beleive now after years of study of the murder that the crime was done unintentinally. Caused by a gross overdosed drugging.
I know that he has spend from eighteen years old to thirty six thinking about his crime. He does not dispute this but is remorseful and still maintains that he was extreemly over drugged during the murder. The offender states that "he did not take any drugs but someone slipped them to him." [These details are to long to add to this comment.]
After doing my own years of searching through his story-- I wanted to meet him after years of him being in prison and hoped to discover unanswered questions that only he might know. Ifound more than I had planned on.
Today I am convinced that he did not intend to kill my daughter. I do beleive him when he says that he was in a altered state of mind and did not recall the murder of my daughter. He has maintained this for many years of his time already served.
He receives nothing in return for his cooperation writing my book,he cannot by law or otherwise. This book of dedication to my daughter began a year before he and I met.
The book tells of her beginnings through my memoir, her life and dreams then onto the very ending of her life and death. It includes breifly a story of the offenders life--told as only he can tell it.
He not only killed my daughter and unborn child but he killed himself in a different way. He has served many years understanding how and why this horrific tragity happened.
I do not beleive the taking of the rest of his life will cause my daughter restitution for the loss of hers and it cannot bring her back.
I did know my daughter well enough to know that she was a forgiving person. Oddly- we had talked about things of this sort years before her death that she predicted.
If he is granted a {Pardon or early release} then I wish him best and beleive he would enter society intending to educate others against drug abuse.
Lylah Rose

Just a quick note; If Shayn... (Below threshold)

Just a quick note; If Shayne Pitts did not mean to kill the girl why did he shoot her THREE times with a TWO shot gun?

Did he not mean to reload?






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