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Justice & mercy

"Justice & mercy" Continued...

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

Mr. Tramel was convicted of second-degree murder with a sentence of 15 years to life, and he says he accepts his responsibility in Michael's death: "Kurtzman was a gun that I had loaded and cocked. . . . That makes me responsible for Michael's death."

At age 19, Mr. Tramel rolled into San Quentin state prison and later was transferred to Solano State Prison in Vacaville. He was not a model prisoner: Over 20 years, he was disciplined twice for minor misconduct and twice for fighting. But he did by all accounts quickly become involved in self-improvement and community service.

Then, in August 1993, Mr. Tramel says he chose the narrow way. While working in the Solano prison hospital, he sat up one night talking of eternal things with a prisoner who was in the last throes of stomach cancer. The man looked at Mr. Tramel and asked, "James, what do you believe?"

"I told him what I'd been afraid to say for a long time-that Jesus is the Son of God and had died for our sins." As Mr. Tramel held his hand, the man died.

At his next parole hearing, in 1994, Mr. Tramel told the board he wanted to enter the Episcopal priesthood. By 1998, he had earned a bachelor's in business from Thomas Edison State College and had become an Episcopal deacon. After extensive testing and interviews, he was admitted to the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, an Episcopal seminary in Berkeley. Change wasn't easy; in 1999, he was disciplined for "mutual combat," a fight he says began when he was attacked by cellmates.

Faculty, prison officials, and members of what now is his home church "were enormously skeptical at first, as I would've been if I'd gotten a letter from some guy in prison," Mr. Tramel said. "It's always been a matter of people coming around from getting to know me. I expect that will always be the case."

In June 2005, Episcopal Bishop William Swing traveled to Solano prison and ordained Mr. Tramel. By the time of his 2005 parole hearing, Mr. Tramel had amassed nearly 200 letters from guards, counselors, seminarians, and clerics avowing that he was a changed man who deserved another chance to live in society. Even Pat McKinley, the Santa Barbara district attorney who helped send Mr. Tramel to prison, advocated for his release.

But the Stephenson family remained steadfast in their opposition, writing letters to the parole board and gathering signatures on petitions. Twice a year, Mr. Stephenson trekked north to testify at parole hearings for both murderers. Each time, prison board protocols forced him to relive Michael's death in graphic detail.

"It's horrible when he goes through the hearings," said Mr. Stephenson's fiancée, Barbara Yates, who has accompanied him for several years, and will continue to do so as Mr. Stephenson fights Mr. Kurtzman's parole. "They have to tell about the whole murder all over again, every time."

Even 20 years later, Michael's face floats through his father's mind "maybe three or four times a day," Mr. Stephenson said. "It's very painful. There's always something missing. What would he have done? What would he have been?"

Members of the Stephenson family WORLD interviewed said Mr. Tramel is a "jailhouse convert," a slick operator who found a path out of prison. When the board this year announced Mr. Tramel's release, "he didn't bow his head or look up and thank God," noted Edward Stephenson's sister, Bernice Bosheff, who attends a small, conservative Lutheran church in tiny Aguanga. "He turned to his right and hugged his attorney."

It hurts, Mrs. Yates said, that the media has "glorified" Mr. Tramel, while turning to his victim's family only long enough to scribble down their resentment. "I don't think society realizes what victims' families go through," she said. "It isn't like stealing, where you can make restitution. Michael can never come back."

Mr. Tramel wishes he could. He has written letters of remorse to Michael's family, but Mr. Stephenson refuses to read them. "In 1985, I didn't know Michael, but he has been with me every step of the way," Mr. Tramel says now. "I have tried to order my life in a way that honors him. I pray for the Stephenson family every day, that God's grace will open a path to reconciliation. I am intimately aware that I have no right or claim to their forgiveness. It's something only they can give."

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