Last Wednesday night two men were executed in the United States: Troy Davis in Georgia and Lawrence Brewer in Texas. While many focused on Davis' fate, as the U.S. Supreme Court considered a last-minute request by his lawyers, Brewer, an unrepentant bigot, was quietly put to death. Hardly a word was spoken about Brewer's execution, but it offers lessons.
Self-proclaimed white supremacist Lawrence Brewer and two of his friends offered a ride to James Byrd Jr., a black man, in Jasper, Texas. But rather than taking him home, Brewer and his buddies beat Byrd mercilessly, chained him by his ankles to the back of a truck, and dragged him to his death, scattering parts of his body along the way. This was no crime of passion, but a cold-blooded, calculated killing of a black man by white men.
Brewer and one of his accomplices, John William King, were sentenced to death. The third accused man, Shawn Berry, received a life sentence.
After reading the account of Byrd's death once or twice, it becomes harder and harder even to glance at the printed page. Words like "beating," "urination," "dragging," and "decapitation" instantly evoke horrific images even as the mind struggles to push them out. To begin to understand what it must mean to visualize this killing over and over again every day, as members of James Byrd's family must have done, defies imagination.
Brewer was not just unrepentant, he was vilely so. He would brag to anyone who would listen of the murder he committed. He was prideful. The day before his execution he told a television reporter, "As far as any regrets, no, I have no regrets. No, I'd do it all over again, to tell you the truth." He appeared to all a man with no hope of redemption.
But a door was opened to his redemption, and the family of James Byrd Jr. opened it. "I have forgiven Lawrence Brewer because in order for me to hate him, that's exactly what happened to my dad," Byrd's daughter Renee Mullins said. Byrd's sister, Betty Byrd-Boatner said, "My parents taught us how to forgive, and so we forgave him. I feel sorry for Brewer because he has so much hate inside of him and didn't understand how to get it out of him."
Speaking of their mother, Stella, who passed away last year, Byrd-Boatner said, "She had every right to be angry, but her words were that 'I forgive them,' and that was deep. Even when we found out that the death was more violent, she still stood and said 'I forgive them and we want peace.'"
As his execution neared, Byrd's sister lamented, "[Brewer] has no remorse and I feel sorry for him, but forgiveness brings about healing. We had begun to heal a long time ago. We're praying for his family as well as our family, and for the citizens of Jasper. We already made peace with it a long time ago."
The Byrd family fought to stop the execution of the man who has caused each of them more grief than most people will suffer in a hundred lifetimes. The Byrds had learned that those who find it in their hearts to forgive even those who least deserve forgiveness gain deeper and more lasting peace.
Elizabeth Bernard Higgs is an adjunct fellow at The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif.