Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Looking into the eyes of evil no more

By John David Powell
Individuals wiser than I tell us the balance of nature allows for both good and bad, although not always in equal measure. Most of the time, we must search hard for the good in a situation so our personal scales will balance.
Priests and preachers put it another way by teaching us that God does not close a door without opening another.  In the case of our family and of the man who tortured and killed my wife's sister nearly 30 years ago, the closing of his prison cell opens the door for our long-delayed healing.
If you have not followed the events of the past few months, which I detailed previously, allow me a brief explanation. My sister-in-law, Martha Payne, died horribly and senselessly in her Greencastle, Ind., home on a drizzly afternoon in October 1981.  Two juries convicted William Minnick for the crimes. Judges both times sentenced him to die, but because of various events resulting in the reversals of his capital punishment he did not face final sentencing until last week.
Our family and the prosecutor feared a worst-case scenario where the new judge would determine Minnick's mitigating circumstances of age and upbringing outweighed the aggravating circumstances of her murder, rape, and robbery. If that happened, the judge could dismiss the rape and robbery convictions and impose the maximum sentence of 60 years for the remaining murder conviction, thereby making him eligible for parole at the end of October.
The prosecutor wanted to concentrate on a point not central to the previous trials.  He wanted to present to the court a living Martha, to portray her as a person, not just as a victim. He wanted to detail her life as a daughter, as a sister, as a wife, and as a vibrant and productive member of her community.  He wanted to demonstrate the deep personal loss experienced by everyone she touched and by those denied the opportunity to know her and to benefit from her.
He also wanted the court to understand that the passing of nearly three decades has not healed our emotional wounds, regardless of what Time is supposed to do.
As I sat at the conference table the day before the hearing, my mind locked onto the words from "Across the Universe", a Beatles' song, the part that goes: "Pools of sorrow, waves of joy are drifting through my open mind, possessing and caressing me."
If, indeed, tears of sorrow borne out of unbending grief can cleanse the soul, then those of us in Indiana last week should be squeaky clean today. But that is not true. We cried, we hugged, we remembered, and we renewed our relationships with Jim, her husband, who distanced himself from us because the memories of happier days could not be separated from the awful scene he found in their bedroom.
And that was the point my wife made to the judge, one that seems to have made a deep impression. Paraphrasing now, she said we all lose people in our lives whether from sickness, accidents, or old age, but we still find a way to balance the sadness of death with the joy of a life remembered.  Minnick, she said, took away our abilities to do this because our memories of Martha alive will be bound forever to those fear-filled final minutes of her life.
It is like you have a broken arm, she told the judge, and you know that if you reach out for something, you will experience great pain; so, you have to ask yourself, is it really worth it?
In our case, we always reach out. And, it seems we are not alone. Joining our families in court this day were two retired lawmen who worked to find Martha's killer. One of them drove several hours at his own expense to fulfill his 30-year-old promise to see Minnick put away for good. Also, some of Martha's friends from high school and college took time off from work to be there.  A man who served on the second jury in 1985 introduced himself before we entered the courtroom.  He said was surprised Minnick had not been sentenced and that he wished he had known the full circumstances of the crime when he joined fellow jurors in recommending life instead of death.
The judge surprised us all when she imposed the maximum sentence on each conviction, to run consecutively, which means Martha's killer will be eligible for parole in 50 years.
The prosecutor asked me to be prepared to testify, but he did not need me. I did not know what I would say until I looked around the courtroom that afternoon.  If you will indulge me just a bit more, I will tell you what I would have said.
I would have said that Martha was a spark that ignited a flame that lit up whatever room she was in, and the presence in the courtroom of family, friends, and strangers proves that her flame still guides us after all these years.
John David Powell writes his columns from ShadeyHill Ranch in Texas.