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Justice & mercy

Crime | When a repentant man goes free for another man's murder, how do survivors cope?

Issue: "Who's laughing now?," April 8, 2006

Sunday, March 26: Another brilliant day in Newport Beach, Calif. Edward Stephenson, 77, rose from bed, shuffled outside, stooped in the driveway to retrieve the morning paper. He carried the paper back inside, fed his toy poodle, poured a bowl of cereal, scanned the headlines.

All the while, Mr. Stephenson also did what he's done every day for more than 20 years: He tried not to think about James Tramel.

Four hundred miles north, Rev. James Tramel snapped on his clerical collar, donned his vestments, and prepared for a milestone morning. Ordained as an Episcopal priest in 2005, on March 26 he presided for the first time over a worship service at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Berkeley. As he does every day, Mr. Tramel also prayed for Edward Stephenson. Mr. Stephenson's son, Michael, has been dead for over 20 years. And Mr. Tramel helped to kill him.

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In 1986, Mr. Tramel, then 17, was convicted of second-degree murder in connection with the stabbing death of Michael Stephenson, 29, a vicious "thrill kill" that outraged the residents of the seaside enclave of Santa Barbara. Mr. Tramel spent 20 years in prison, where he grew from a boy to a man, claimed Christ as savior, and became the first inmate ever ordained as an Episcopal priest while incarcerated.

Over the passionate objections of the Stephenson family, Mr. Tramel was paroled March 19. He walked out of Solano State Prison and headed straight to a new job as assistant pastor at the Church of the Good Shepherd. As he stepped into freedom, news cameras rolled and print reporters scribbled furiously about the earnest, soft-spoken, and apparently repentant murderer who had turned his life around.

Reporters also interviewed Edward Stephenson, who reminded them that his son, Michael, was the wholly innocent victim of a brutal crime, and wondered aloud about a justice system that allows someone to kill and then go free. "Even if [Mr. Tramel] is redeemed, there are plenty of people in prison he could help," Mr. Stephenson told WORLD. "Tramel should preach from behind bars."

In the case of Michael Stephenson and James Tramel, social and religious ideals collide in a perfect storm of sin, pain, and justice: Repentance versus consequences. Justice versus grace. Righteous anger versus guilt-stained joy. And hanging over it all, the tragic truth that while redemption is always a possibility, restitution is not.

In 1985, James Tramel and David Kurtzman, both 17, were students at Northwestern Preparatory School, a military school in Santa Barbara. After some Northwestern kids clashed with the City Rockers, a Latino gang, a young, brash Mr. Tramel organized a vigilante crew bent on revenge.

He told Mr. Kurtzman and another classmate to buy dark clothing, ropes, and materials to make sodium bombs. He also taught the others how to use a knife offensively and defensively. Then they went hunting for the City Rockers.

Mr. Tramel carried Mr. Kurtzman's 6-inch knife off campus, and later that night he gave it to Mr. Kurtzman. The boys never found the Latino gang, but about 1 a.m., while walking through a city park, they heard music floating up from a gazebo. Investigating, they found Michael Stephenson.

Press accounts described Michael as a "transient," but his family says he was on a backpacking trip and had stopped in Santa Barbara to see an old friend. Messrs. Tramel and Kurtzman found Michael in the gazebo, bunked down in a sleeping bag.

What happened next is in dispute. Press accounts and Mr. Tramel say he had his back to Michael, talking to him about the weather, when he heard the victim say, "No, my friend."

"Michael was on his hands and knees," Mr. Tramel wrote in a 2005 account of the crime, "and Kurtzman was leaning over him. . . . I saw the knife in Kurtzman's hand, and before I could say or do anything, I saw Kurtzman cut Michael's throat. . . . I gasped, 'Dave, stop!' Kurtzman looked up at me with a crazed look in his eyes, and he was trembling."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a letter that reversed parole granted to Mr. Tramel in 2004, added other disputed details: that "Mr. Tramel told Mr. Kurtzman that the man [Michael Stephenson] was one of the gang members they were looking for"; that Mr. Tramel returned to the dorm and bragged to other students that they had "bagged a Mexican"; that Mr. Tramel wagered one of them $50 that his story was true.

Mr. Tramel denies telling Mr. Kurtzman that Michael was one of the gang members. He also denies bragging about the murder to other students. But he told WORLD he does not dispute the bottom line. "He was the one that started this whole thing," Edward Stephenson said. "It was his idea, his follow-through, his everything. When he had a chance to stop it, he let things go on."

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