In its most prime real estate – Column One — the Los Angeles Times recently carried the story of an inmate finding forgiveness on death row. On the surface, it's a compelling story with a strong religion angle:
Reporting from Dallas — They spoke just twice.
The first time was 10 years ago when Mark Stroman, armed with a sawed-off shotgun, pushed through the door of a Dallas gas station and furiously asked the dark-skinned clerk, Rais Bhuiyan, "Where are you from?"
The second was a brief phone call this summer before Stroman was about to be executed. "I forgive you and I do not hate you," Bhuiyan told the man who had shot him in the face, blinding him in his right eye.
"Thank you from my heart," Stroman said. "I love you."
After all the commemorations on the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, there is a story left to tell. The events involving Stroman and Bhuiyan happened far from the scene of the attacks, but stemmed directly from them. Their story is a counterpoint to much of the narrative of the last decade, but is nevertheless central to it. It is a story about terror and revenge. But it is also about forgiveness.
Keep reading, and we learn that victim Bhuiyan hails from a "deeply religious Muslim family." I'm still trying to decipher those adjectives — "deeply religious Muslim" — and would welcome your interpretation. Is "religious Muslim" redundant? Could one be "deeply Muslim" without the religion? But I digress.
Later, we discover that "another Muslim had been killed in a shooting nearby." But no other details are given. So, there's no way to know if the shooting was religiously motivated.
The role of faith in the victim's life makes an appearance here:
In the ambulance rushing to the hospital, Bhuiyan recited from the Koran. He cried out for his mother. He remembered what she told him years ago. Follow the Islamic faith, she said, and forgive those who hurt you.
Is that vague enough for you? What did he recite from the Koran? What does the Islamic faith teach about forgiveness?
More religion appears later in the story:
Bhuiyan also heard his mother's voice: "He is the best who can forgive."
In 2009, Bhuiyan traveled to Mecca. For days he prayed, trying to let go of his anger. When he returned to the U.S., he viewed Stroman no differently than the Sept. 11 hijackers. "I saw Mark that same way. He had a closed soul just like them." All of them were "ignorant," he said.
Stroman wrote letters from prison to family and friends. "This was not a crime of hate but an act of Passion and Patriotism, an act of country and commitment, an act of retribution and recompense," he said. He called himself the "first American to Retaliate and take a stand."
"I may be a Bad American, but that's tough!" He was "Texas Loud and Texas Proud," he said. He ended his letters, "God bless America."
By this year, however, Stroman's rhetoric was softening. "Waiting patiently, looking deep within myself," he titled a letter in June. He wrote about turning to the Christian religion, and how "this ride of death has truly changed me and I believe it's part of the Master's plan."
I'd love to know more about Stroman's conversion story. At the same time, the reporter appears to be relying on sources outside the prison (family and friends), so direct contact with the inmate may not have been possible. It's unclear from the piece whether the reporter began work on the story before or after the lethal injection.
Moreover, stories involving death row inmates typically involve troubled souls (I'll never forget a Tennessee death row inmate telling me that the government used scientific technology to control his mind and body). I did a piece a decade ago on a typical execution day in Oklahoma, and the day I chose just happened to involve an inmate who refused an interview and said nothing at his parole hearing or the lethal injection.
The Times does include a transcript of a final conversation between the inmate and victim:
Earlier in the day, though, Bhuiyan managed to speak briefly with Stroman by cellphone. The line was patchy, and for some time Stroman had been struggling with how to say he was sorry.
"Hey, man, thank you for everything you have been trying to do for me," he told Bhuiyan. "You are inspiring. Thank you from my heart, dude."
"Mark, you should know that I am praying for God the most compassionate and gracious," Bhuiyan said. "I forgive you and I do not hate you. I never hated you.... This is from the bottom of my heart."
"You are a remarkable person," Stroman said. "Thank you from my heart! I love you, bro.... You touched my heart. I would have never expected this."
"You touched mine too."
I wish the Times revealed the source of the conversation. Did the victim tape it? Did the Times listen in on it? Did the victim recite it from memory?
My overall impression of the story: It's a nice feature but too much of a skeleton — and not enough of a full body — as far as really exposing the religion ghosts.
Inmate image via Shutterstock.