Our Voices > Reform Debate

Heinous Crimes Make Us Ask a Tough Question: Is Redemption Possible?

Feb 20, 2023

By Rob Barton

“There is no place for you or your ignorant, hateful and evil ideologies in a civilized society. There can be no mercy for you, no understanding, no second chances. The damage you have caused is too great and the people you have hurt are too valuable to this community. You will never see the light of day as a free man ever again.” Judge Susan Eagan, before sentencing Payton Gendron, the white teen who shot and killed 10 Black people in a Buffalo supermarket.

Damn…This is a tough one for me. As a Black man, I understand acutely both the family’s and society’s thirst for retribution and revenge (which we often confuse with justice). Too many moments are seared into my heart: The stories told by my grandmother of the 14-year-old Emmitt Till, run down like a dog by a mob and beat to death, simply for whistling at a white woman. The church in Alabama, known as a common site for civil rights meetings, bombed in the ‘60s, killing four young Black girls. Dylann Roof shooting Black parishioners like pigs lined up for slaughter in 2015, after they welcomed him into their church.

While no one in my family has been murdered, I witnessed and experienced racism up close and personal many times, both by the cops in the streets when I was a kid and behind these southern prison walls, where most of the COs [correctional officers] are white in the worst kind of way.  My gut instinct is to want my pound of flesh in return.

So yeah, I understand those who applauded Gendron’s life-without-parole sentence (and maybe even wanted him to get death). That white boy published an 180-page manifesto spouting supremacist, anti-Black and anti-Jewish hate speech, then live-streamed his attack. Innocent people were killed for nothing more than their blackness. The bile rises in my throat just thinking of it. This type of evil has no place in our society.

Is hope something to be rationed, or freely shared?

But one thing I’ve come to think deeply about since I co-founded More Than Our Crimes with Pam Bailey is what it means to advocate for second chances. Do I believe everyone should be offered the hope of achieving redemption, if they desire it? Or am I selective, drawing a line that determines who has the opportunity to prove they have changed, and who does not—no matter what they do?

My conclusion: As hard as it is for me to say this, I can’t in good conscience say that an individual who was only 18 when he committed his crimes can and will never change. After all, I changed. The incident in which was involved at the age of 16 resulted in the murder of one individual—not 10. But to that young man’s mother, his loss was as painful a burden as the death of a dozen. I literally know hundreds of men who committed the most heinous of crimes—murder—and were labelled irredeemable, even “super predators,” at the time of their convictions, yet are now back in society counseling youth, maintaining buildings, going back to school. So, as badly as I want to say “fuck, throw away the key” for Gendron, I can’t, because I would essentially be saying “fuck you” to myself and the other men I see around me who are nothing like the people who entered prison decades ago.

My co-founder, Pam, asked in a similar post this question: “Is it possible for us as a society to hold two seemingly opposite values in our minds and hearts at the same time? Can we be horrified by a crime and demand accountability, while also preserving the possibility for redemption?” She went on to share an account from a book we both have read, Anthony Ray Hinton’s memoir, “The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row.” During his time behind bars, Hinton became friends with another prisoner on death row, Henry Hays, a KKK member who was executed in 1997 for a truly heinous crime he committed 14 years earlier. But in that isolated environment, stripped of all other outside influences, Hays and and Hinton got to know each other’s souls. And before he was finally put to death, Hays told Ray, “All of my life, my father, my mother, my community, taught me to hate. But the very people that they taught me to hate, have taught me how to love. I discovered I have a brother named Ray.”

If Hays could change, the possibility at least exists that anyone can.

I find myself wondering now, from who and how did Gendron develop his racist, violent ideology? News reports indicate that his parents weren’t known for similar behavior. But it doesn’t come from nowhere. What other forces was he subjected to? And what about his mental health? Had signs of depression, social alienation and disordered thinking gone unnoticed and thus untreated?

The laws that have freed so many of my friends, and that I hope will one day free me (D.C.’s Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act and its Second Look extension), are based on a solid foundation of science showing that the brain doesn’t fully develop until a person is 25. Persons who are younger are highly influenced by their upbringing, environment, peers and an often-toxic mix of other factors, rendering them unable to adequately control the frequently volatile impulses of teenagers. Now, imagine struggling with mental illness on top of that.

As hard as it is for me to say this or perhaps for you to accept it, I am left with no other option but to conclude: If my friends and I can change, it’s at least possible he can too. There really is no way to say what kind of person he will be in 15 or 20 years. Why must we close that door?

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