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A family strives for more than an evil response to evil


This past fall, in Stillwater, Minn., we participated in the six-week trial of the man charged with murdering our daughter, Marlys Ann Wohlenhaus, in May of 1979. Over 19 years is a long time to wait for justice, and we have had many opportunities to consider what that justice might be.

Some friends have admonished us to forgive Marlys’ murderer; others declare we should kill him or have him killed. Apparently the latter would be easy enough to do. We have held those two positions like one might hold on to the horns of a ferocious bull. The anger raging within us had to be subdued before we could let go of the horn of forgiveness, lest we be impaled on it, and before we would release the horn of revenge, for surely it would have gored us.

Since 1979, we have reassembled our lives, not getting over the murder but striving to go on. During the trial, well-meaning friends and new acquaintances proposed various fantasy fates for the killer, some as horrible as the crime he committed. Before the trial ended, before the verdict and our opportunity to express ourselves in victim impact statements, we knew we could not wish violence on this serial killer. We did not enjoy speculating on the various possibilities for pain, suffering and death he might be forced to endure. We stepped away from revenge, unwilling to become additional victims, unable to dishonor the memory of our daughter by wishing that his parents, too, would suffer our loss.

Because of our over 19-year quest for justice, we have talked with many other families who have suffered the incalculable loss of a homicide. Some, sadly, are bitter because the justice system didn’t reach a guilty verdict, didn’t exonerate their loved one by establishing the guilt of the murderer. Many have ended their quest with a guilty verdict for the killer, a sentence of life in jail, often with the comfortable assurances of no parole.

Others have had the experience of having the killer receive the full term of the capital punishment process, execution by the state. They are not at peace. None have sought us or other homicide victims out. None have told us how good they felt that another has died. No one who has had the death penalty imposed on the killer of their precious child has said anything about restitution of wholeness or of being delivered from their grief by the surrender of the killer’s life. Their child is still dead, and they are often consumed by bitterness.

During our trial -- for we claimed it as our own -- judgment rested in the hands of the jury as to guilt, and the judge provided the sentence when they found the defendant guilty of murder in the first degree. Between those two events we had an opportunity to present victim impact statements to the court. Nothing we or anyone else could say or do would bring Marlys and the other victims back to life. The defendant didn’t tell the court -- or us -- of any remorse for his acts, since he continued to deny guilt. But this opportunity also allowed us to speak directly to the defendant for the first time.

We spoke, calling for justice, so no more young women would be slaughtered and no more families would struggle to survive ruptured lives, caused by this man or by others. We also let the defendant and the world know how we plan to live good, productive, compassionate lives, in memory of Marlys and in honor of our other children.

We did not say anything about the evil thoughts we’ve had, unwanted and eventually put away, of revenge or punishment. We’ve come beyond an evil response to evil. We hold justice and mercy in tension -- some say the two are mutually exclusive but they are not. Justice is for the crime and the criminal; mercy for the victims by removing a menace from society.

A bereaved parent feels overwhelming intensity of loss, one that drives nearly all bereaved parents to consider suicide, an idea almost always rejected. In some cases I’ve heard about but not known personally a person so terribly weakened by her grief that she doesn’t resist the temptation to take her own life. It has happened.

I have been thinking about the serial murderer now convicted of murdering our daughter, a person with his own history of rejection, and how he has been acting out his own pain, triggering it over and over in re-lived repulsion until taking a life, or lives, became his only response. The one who killed Marlys became so inward in his obsession, his anger so fueled by rejection, he took the path to evil, deadly evil. He killed instead of loved, and that’s his personal real tragedy, the prison he’ll never escape.

Only with justice and mercy can we go on with life. Only then is inner peace restored.

John S. Munday lives in Drexel Hill, Pa. He is the chapter leader for the Compassionate Friends of Delaware County, a local chapter affiliated with the Compassionate Friends, an international support group for families whose child has died. He is the author of Surviving the Death of a Child, published by Westminster/John Knox Press of Louisville, Ky.

National Catholic Reporter, August 27, 1999