Deciding when to forgive

Scales of justiceWhenever really dramatic news breaks, I wish I could see how the future will play out for the various parties. But reporters rarely write about the ongoing lives of people who made news in the past. Joe Lambe, writing for the Kansas City Star, however, was able to do just that about a remarkable story that made headlines a decade ago:

Daniel Crocker is forgotten now, faded into the gray obscurity of famous criminals behind bars.

It has been a decade since his story fed the national news when he came forward to say he had killed a Shawnee woman almost two decades earlier.

He said he had no choice but to confess.

"As I pursued my walk with the Lord, this wall had come up. . . . I couldn't live as a hypocrite any longer."

His confession closed the case of the 1979 murder of 19-year-old Tracy Fresquez. He was sentenced to 20 to 60 years. His wife divorced him. His two children, now teenagers, grew up without him. And now he's up for parole.

For background, Crocker grew up in a devout Christian family, was high on LSD, tried to have sex with Fresquez but she refused. He sneaked back into her apartment later that night and tried to rape her. When she screamed, he smothered her with a pillow. Never caught, he tried to erase his memory of what he did. He returned to Christianity, got married and started a family. Overcome with guilt, though, he turned himself in.

What is interesting about Lambe's story is how he isn't afraid to let the sources speak about redemption, punishment and religion.

In Topeka last month, Jay Fresquez of Kansas City told the parole board that his family agreed to the plea deal for Crocker a decade ago.

"At the time it seemed like a fair swap," he said. "The rarity of a guy who found Jesus and turned his life around had us stunned."

Jay Fresquez was 16 when his sister died. It tore at his family, he said, and now he sees no fairness in Crocker's possible early release. "Ten years . . . isn't enough to even begin to pay for what he did."

Crocker may have a spotless prison record, mentor other inmates and be a man of God now, Fresquez said, "but 30 years ago . . . he was on a path of death."

"You can be as godly as you want, but he still killed my sister," Fresquez said. "If he'd confessed what he'd done at the beginning, he'd be a free man by now."

A major theme of the hearing was what role religion should play in Crocker's punishment. The Fresquez family believes that justice requires at least five more years in prison.

At another parole hearing, Crocker's family, including his clergyman brother, asked for his release. Among their justifications, was Crocker's religious views:

Crocker learned and taught the Bible, Jim Crocker told the parole board. He stayed busy helping others. But he "could not work enough to escape his conscience."

Proverbs 28:13 spoke to Crocker: "A man who refuses to admit his mistakes can never be successful. But if he confesses and forsakes them, he gets another chance."

When Crocker turned himself in, he did not know whether he would face the death penalty.

It's an interesting translation of Proverbs 28:13. I have: "He who covers his sins will not prosper, But whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy." Lambe returns to it in the story:

Religion is separate from state concerns, but even that is a tough call, said Jim Brandt, a professor of historical theology at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City.

The proverb Crocker's family refers to is part of what biblical scholars call "wisdom literature," which is practical advice on how to live a good life.

It says a person should get another chance, but "we can't force forgiveness on a victim's family."

In addition to being a very interesting follow-up story, I appreciate how well the reporter let religion play the role it naturally plays in the story. He didn't try to write around it and even went to a theologian for comment. It's a nice change of pace.

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