“I just hugged the man that murdered my son. I just hugged the man that murdered my son.”
Mary Johnson was bent over as she repeated this sentence.
The man who had killed her only son had just left the small meeting room at the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Stillwater, one of the state’s most notorious prisons.
Their meeting—between mom of murdered son and the man who killed him—had been years in the making, not only from a procedural standpoint but also from an emotional and spiritual perspective.
A day that changed everything
Mary remembers Feb. 12, 1993, starting out as a regular day. After her morning devotions, she rode to downtown Minneapolis where she worked at a telephone company. Everything up to that point in her day was normal—nothing had prepared her to what the next several hours would entail.
“I got into work, and my phone rang,” Mary recalls with poignant accuracy. “My older sister was calling, and she was sharing a dream she had. There was this great big room, and it was dark, but there was this big white curtain just kind of flowing, blowing in the wind. She said she saw a shadow.”
Mary questioned her about the shadow, but her sister didn’t want to talk about it anymore.
So the sisters hung up and went back to their respective days.
At the time, Mary didn’t think about some of her own dreams, where the men in her family were dying. She knew death was around, but she believed these dreams were probably related to her father, who at the time was the oldest man in her family.
About 20 minutes after Mary hung up the phone with her sister, her phone rang again. This time it was her sister-in-law, and she asked Mary if her son, Laramiun, had come home the night before.
Mary said he hadn’t.
“I don’t know if it’s true or not, but they’re saying that Laramiun is dead, and his body is at North Memorial or Hennepin County,” Mary’s sister-in-law said.
“I didn’t get upset, because she said she didn’t know if it was true or not,” Mary recalled. “I asked her who had given her that information, and she said her sister. So I got her sister’s number and called her, and she immediately transferred me to a lady who was well known in the community. This lady said she got a call early that morning, and that the caller just kept saying, ‘They killed Laramiun, they killed Laramiun.’”
Even with this added information, Mary still didn’t know what to think.
But soon after, confirmation would come—along with a visit from police detectives.
Mary’s worst fear had come true: Her only son was dead.
Anger and questions
Even though the police and coroner confirmed that Laramiun was dead, Mary had a difficult time believing it.
“I couldn’t eat,” she said, referring to the hours and days immediately following the news. “I really couldn’t sleep. All I could do was drink coffee, and I wasn’t even a coffee drinker. But that just seemed to be the only thing I could get down.”
Sometimes the arrest of a murder suspect brings a small sense of solace to those grieving the loss of the deceased, but when the detectives informed Mary that Laramiun’s killer had been arrested, it brought her no such comfort.
“It was hard,” Mary recalled about those first few months. “I was off work for a while. I was very angry. I wanted this kid to be charged with first-degree murder. That’s what was my focus. That he would never, ever get out of prison. I wanted to make sure he would get life in prison because he deserved it. He was an animal.”
The trial would not take place for nearly two years and during this time, the anger and bitterness in Mary’s life were constant companions.
Oshea Israel, the man who was charged with killing Laramiun, was 16 years old at the time of the murder, but he was tried in court as an adult. He was subsequently found guilty of second-degree murder—after initially being charged with first degree murder—and sentenced to more than 25 years in prison.
As part of the judicial process, those affected most by a crime are sometimes allowed to give impact statements to the court in an effort to communicate the pain a particular crime has wrought on family and friends.
When Mary gave her impact statement, she told the judge “how appalled I was at the things I learned that went on in a court. I had told Oshea, ‘If my son would have taken your life for the same reason you said you took his, I would expect him to have to pay the costs. So I expect you to have to pay the costs.’”
After her impact statement, Mary told Israel that she forgave him. She sincerely believed it at the time, but over the next several years, Mary discovered her forgiveness was not complete.
“I only did that because I’m a Christian woman, and that’s what the Bible says,” Mary recalled. “In order to be forgiven, you must forgive. It says forgive, forgive, forgive, forgive … all over the place.”
Mary hugged Oshea’s mother as she left the court that day and invited her to church.
The terrible experience of having your only son murdered and then having to sit through a trial of his murderer was seemingly behind her.
Traces of healing
One day after the trial, Mary opened a book and came across a poem called “Two Mothers.”
“It was about two angels in heaven and, because of the crowns they wore, they both knew they were mothers on earth,” Mary said. “They began to talk about their sons and one mother said, ‘I would have taken my son’s place on the cross.’ The other mother fell on one knee and said, ‘Oh, you are she, the mother of Christ.’ The mother of Christ lifted her and kissed a tear from her cheek and said, ‘Now tell me of your son so I may grieve with you.’ She said, ‘He is Judas Iscariot. I am his mother.’”
Mary read the poem again and heard, “I want mothers of murdered children and mothers of children who have taken lives to come together and heal together.”
This was a dramatic change in focus for Mary. She was still fighting the bitterness and anger that would accompany any parent of a murdered child. And now she was feeling encouraged to bridge the divide between mothers on opposite sides of a nearly unspeakable life experience.
She resisted the charge at first but as the years passed, she kept hearing, “This is what you’re to do.”
It’s often during these critical life moments that several disconnected things come together to speak new direction in our lives. Around this same time, Mary’s pastor asked her to teach a class about forgiveness. She still didn’t feel up to the task.
But these two impulses—the voice telling her to bridge the divide between mothers and the urging to teach a class on forgiveness—caused her to make one of the most dramatic decisions of her life.
“If I’m to do this two mothers [program],” Mary thought, “I have to go to prison and meet this man who took my son’s life. Because, if I’m still full of hatred for him, there’s no way I can do this.”
The transforming decision
With her new realization intact and giving her encouragement, Mary contacted the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) at the end of 2003 and asked to meet with Oshea. His response? “Absolutely not,” Mary recalled.
So she waited a few more months and asked again, this time with a different response.
Oshea agreed to meet.
In preparation for their time together, Mary went through four, two-hour meetings, discussing the reason for the meeting, the expectations and any other questions that might arise in victim/offender dialogues.
In 2005, the meeting was finally confirmed and scheduled. There would be five people involved: Mary; her friend Regina; a representative from the DOC; a social worker who would serve as a facilitator for the meeting; and Oshea.
The morning of the visit, Mary and Regina had their devotions and just felt as if things would be OK. But how could they? So many emotions, pain and resentment were bundled inside the people who would gather in a small room at what is perhaps the state’s most infamous prison.
As Mary walked up the ramp to the entrance, she broke down, the years of emotional turmoil overwhelming her. She told God she couldn’t do it. Twelve years of pain and hurt prevented her legs from taking another step.
But God seemingly had other plans, ones that would include forgiveness, restoration and hope for others.
“God said He would send us out two by two,” Mary recalled, sensing God’s gentle encouragement. “I’m grateful because Regina was behind me, and she just pushed me up the ramp.”
Once in the room and with all the parties seated, the official from the DOC went over the rules for the two-hour meeting.
As a way to set the stage for this potentially powerful meeting, Mary said to Oshea: “I don’t know you. You don’t know me. You didn’t know my son, and my son didn’t know you. We need to get to know one another better. We need to build a foundation here.”
So they did.
They told each other about their lives and slowly the years of anger, mistrust and pain began to melt away.
Mary told Oshea that on his day in court she had told him that she forgave him, “but today from the bottom of my heart, I forgive you. I can do it because of who is within me.”
They talked some more and then Oshea asked if he could hug Mary. She agreed.
“We walked around the table, and we hugged and I was hysterical,” Mary recalled.
She started to fall, and Oshea had to hold her up.
“I think right then and there, there was some type of bond made,” Mary said. “He could have dropped me, but he held me.”
And in that moment, “there was such an instant release of knowing that all that hatred, all that bitterness, all that animosity, all that junk I had inside me for 12 years, that it was over.”
Four years later, in Dec. 2009, Oshea was released from prison.
On March 7, 2010, Mary’s organization, From Death to Life, along with the Visitation Sisters, held a “Welcome Home” party for Oshea. This gave him a chance to continue the restoration process and find encouragement in his journey away from prison and back into community life.
Mary founded From Death in Life in 2005 as an organization committed to “ending violence through healing and reconciliation between families of victims and those who have caused harm.”
The two—Mary and Oshea—often speak together at community events now, sharing crucial elements of their own stories.
The journey to forgiveness took Mary 12 years and was filled with anger, bitterness, resentment and even hatred. But she eventually embraced forgiveness and offered it to someone who took the most precious thing she had.
For those struggling with forgiveness, Mary encourages them to embrace the freedom that results from offering it.
“The main thing I want people to know about forgiveness is that forgiveness is for you,” she said. “It’s not for the other person. It’s for you so that you can be released from all that hatred and bitterness and anger, all of that garbage, all of that baggage you are carrying that will hurt you. Forgiveness is freedom for you. You are really the offender who is being set free.”
Is the journey easy? No, “It’s not easy; it took me 12 years,” Mary said.
— by Scott Noble