On July 9, 1978, my world changed forever. I was a 14-year-old girl enjoying a carefree summer before my 9th grade year. My carefree summer, and carefree life, came to an abrupt end with the news that my beautiful Aunt Norma, my Uncle Rocky, and my 15-year-old cousin, Warren, had been murdered in the night.
At 14, I knew about death, of course, or I thought I did. Death happened to old people at the end of long lives. It happened to people who got sick with incurable diseases. I knew that God sometimes took a young person in a tragic car accident, but I had no personal experience with such tragedies. Peoria , the nearest big town to where I lived, had their share of murders. But they happened to other people, to other families in other neighborhoods. I didnít ever really think about murders, but if I had, I would have been certain nothing like that could ever happen to my family.
But it did. And by dayís end, the tragedy would be compounded by the news that my 17-year-old cousin, Jimmy, Warren ís older brother, had been arrested and charged with the three murders.
My world took on a surreal quality that even now is hard to explain. Jimmy was the golden boy of all of us cousins. He was a star baseball player and athlete with an aura of greatness about him. He was always a fun-loving kid who was thoughtful and sweet to me, his awkward, shy, sometimes annoying younger girl cousin. I looked up to him and admired him.
My grandparents adored him. The news of the murders shocked them; but Jimmyís arrest completely devastated them. Truthfully, I donít believe they ever recovered from the total devastation, and both died a few years after Jimmy went to prison.
My parents and my aunts and uncles were shell-shocked and confused. Everyone rallied around Jimmy, his defense, and his upcoming trial. None of us believed he could be guilty. It was completely out of character for him and there had been no signs to indicate problems or to foreshadow the events to come. It just couldnít be possible, and yet, the police and the State said he did it. We knew if he had done it, then it had to have been under extraordinary circumstances. Something must have made him snap. It would be years before we would learn of the secret life he had suffered at the hands of his mother and his first stepfather.
The adults in my extended family were consumed with the details of the crime, of the funeral, and then of Jimmyís defense and his trial. My sister, brother and I were in an emotional conundrum. We didnít understand what was happening. We didnít understand the judicial process that was being thrust upon our family. And we absolutely didnít understand our feelings which were part sadness for the loss of our family members, part anger at Jimmy for many reasons, but also sadness and fear for him, and fear for us, too. Nobody was there for us emotionally. How could they be? They were numb with grief and despair. Our grandparents, who had always been so loving and kind, were now sad and distant.
For many years after the crime, after the trial, and after Jimmy was sent to prison, I battled my own anger. I was mad at him for taking away my family, along with his. I think I may have even hated him during my own adolescence. When a tragedy of that magnitude hits, it completely alters the family dynamics. Along with all our personal feelings, we also had the notoriety to deal with. Kids at school knew about it and we were often teased or taunted, and always embarrassed and ashamed. We had no idea how to deal with it.
The crime took from us the unspoken, invisible safety net that as kids we just took for granted. It took away our ability to easily trust another person. I think it would have been different had a stranger been convicted of the murders. As children, youíre taught to beware of strangers. But Jimmy was a trusted and beloved relative, and a friend. We knew him to be a good and loving person. If he could just snap and do something so awful, then who couldnít? Could it happen to our own siblings, to one of us? To our parents? It was a frightening and emotional few years during what would have been a vulnerable time in the best of circumstances.
It has taken years and years for me to be able to deal with the tragedy that befell my family. I donít think we ever got over the crime itself, or experienced that magical, elusive sense of closure everyone talks about. But what I did get over was my anger and my fear. I was able to let go of that when I was able to forgive Jimmy.
I was able to reconnect with him, to get to know him all over again and to see him not as someone to loathe, not as someone to pity, and most importantly, not as someone to blame for my own problems. At a certain point, I had to take responsibility for myself, for my failures as well as my successes. And in doing so, I took back the control and self- confidence that had been missing from my life.
I looked at Jimmyís life behind bars from a new perspective. He was sentenced to Life Without Parole as a 17-year-old child. A child! I have children of my own who have either been 17 or will be soon. I have seen their vulnerabilities and their impulsivities. Iíve witnessed bouts of irrational and inexplicable behavior. They were not adults at 17, or anywhere close to being adults. The very idea that one of them could have been sentenced to life in prison for one impulsive, albeit devastating, act sends shivers up my spine. Iíve also seen my oldest child emerge from the minefield that is adolescence into adulthood safe, calm, and happy.
I witnessed a similar evolution with Jimmy. He had to grow up and mature under the worst possible conditions, in a maximum-security adult prison. Somehow he was able to do this with integrity and to develop a sense of values that is rare even in free society. He obtained his GED, his Associateís Degree, and his Bachelorís Degree from behind bars. He has held down jobs within the prison nearly the entire time he has been there, even while attending classes. He continues to grow in knowledge and spirit and to extrapolate wisdom from the knowledge he has gained.
Just as I had a choice to either take responsibility for my own life or to continue blaming and making excuses, Jimmy has also made choices. He could have chosen to be angry and to act out his anger at other inmates or staff. He could have chosen to join a gang or to associate with the evil and disruptive elements of a maximum-security prison. He could have chosen to give up. But he didnít. He chose to fight through the demons and he chose to avoid the pitfalls that would make his life a living hell. He chose to not bring more pain and heartache to his family. He chose to live his life behind bars with dignity and to make a difference in whatever ways he could.
I have learned much from Jimmy over the years. Perhaps the greatest lesson Iíve learned is to appreciate life and to know the difference between the petty and meaningless minutiae that constantly threaten to clog my existence versus that which is important and meaningful.
I wish I could say that every inmate deserves a second chance to live freely again. Jimmy has also taught me that no inmate can ever be changed or rehabilitated unless he chooses to do so and unless he does the hard work required of such a transformation. But for those, like Jimmy, who have spent so much time behind bars, have done the work to change, have accepted responsibility for their transgressions against their God and society, and who feel an honest and profound remorse, I do believe they should be given that second chance, the opportunity to live freely in society as long as they continue to deserve it.
I believe in a merciful and compassionate God. My religious beliefs have taught me that forgiveness, mercy and compassion, especially in the most difficult of circumstances, is the meaning of faith. This I believe with all my heart, for if I did not, how could I call myself a woman of true faith?
For any family who has lost a loved one to murder, my heart and sympathy goes out to you. The anger you feel at first can consume you if you allow it to do so. In the years between Jimmyís crime and today, my family has experienced other personal tragedies. They did not involve murders but they were equally devastating. Whenever a loved one is taken unexpectedly or at too young an age, it is a tragedy. It leaves an open wound that only time can heal. But I can tell you that anger, bitterness, hatred and revenge do nothing to aid in the healing process and only succeed in leaving ugly scars.
I will continue to support Jimmy and to pray that someday soon our society stops locking up our children for the rest of their lives. This is America , the land of second chances and new beginnings. Jimmy Childers deserves that, and many others who are locked up do as well.
Jimmy cannot ever take back his crime. He cannot ever bring back the lives he is convicted of having taken. He cannot take their places in death as much as he might like to. What he can do is to honor their lives by spending every day for the rest of his life in service to their memory. He canít do this from behind bars when every day of his existence is a nightmare, where his days are spent trying to rise above the inhumanity and evil of his surroundings.
I have asked myself many times what good can come from keeping Jimmy Ė and others like him Ė behind bars? Will society remain safer? Will the families of their victims sleep better at night? I can only answer for myself and for my own family. For us, having him home would restore a family torn asunder so many years ago. It would be a confirmation of our faith, a faith in a loving, merciful, and forgiving God. And faith in our great country that was founded on such morals.
Thank you for your attention,