Note: This commentary was delivered by Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley.
Every now and again, I come across a news story that stops me dead in my tracks. Last week, I came across two such stories about mind-boggling injustice and mind-bending mercy.
The first story concerns Willie “Pete” Williams, an African-American man from Georgia. He served more than two decades in prison for crimes he never committed.
In 1985, Williams was accused of aggravated sodomy, kidnapping, and rape. Despite his claims of innocence, Williams was sentenced to forty-five years. For the next twenty-two years, he slept on hard bunks, ate prison hash, and could only wonder about the life he might have lived on the outside.
But Williams did not give up. In July 2005, he contacted the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal clinic that reexamines criminal cases using post-conviction DNA evidence. After investigating Williams’s claims that he was wrongly convicted on faulty eyewitness evidence, the Innocence Project took his case back to court, and Williams was found innocent.
After singing a few lines of “Amazing Grace,” 44-year-old Williams walked out of prison a free man and went home to eat a steak dinner with his family. A few days later, he appeared at a news conference claiming he wasn’t angry about spending half of his life behind bars. Instead, he demonstrated mercy and forgiveness. “Anybody can screw up,” he said. “We’re all human.”
Would you or I have reacted to such horrific injustice with such grace? I pray we’ll never find out.
Williams attributes his remarkable ability to forgive to his conversion to Christ in prison. “That’s been my rock,” he said. Williams’s faith in Christ carried him through years of being labeled a sex offender and gave him hope that his innocence would one day come to light.
And guess what? Williams wasn’t the only innocent man exonerated last month. James Waller, a 50-year-old Dallas prisoner, who also lost half his life to prison and parole, was declared innocent—also by the Innocence Project—of a 1982 conviction of raping a boy. At the court ruling, Waller, like Williams, said he wasn’t angry “because the Lord has given me so much.”
One commentator on a liberal weblog admitted he was astounded when he read Waller’s story in the New York Times. “I tried to imagine having that kind of magnanimity,” the blogger wrote, “and I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it.”
Well, the only way we can wrap our minds around that kind of forgiveness is to receive that kind of forgiveness ourselves—which God offers us in Christ. It’s only then that we will know what Waller and Williams know: that revenge and bitterness, while they abound on earth, have no place in heaven.
In the end, I believe it’s the graciousness, the forgiveness, and the hope in men like James Waller and Willie Williams that acts as a signpost pointing even the most hardened skeptic to the reality of God’s love and forgiveness. These men are living examples of Peter’s admonition in 1 Peter 2:12 that we live such good lives among unbelievers that, “though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God . . . ”
There is no better evidence of the presence of Jesus in our world.
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Learn more about the Innocence Project.
“Taking Freedom, Celebrity in Stride after 22 Years in Prison,” First Coast News, 26 January 2007.
“Man Exonerated in Rape after Nearly 22 Years in Prison,” Associated Press, 24 January 2007.
Ralph Blumenthal, et al., “A 12th Dallas Convict Is Exonerated by DNA,” New York Times, 18 January 2007.
“Wrongly Convicted Man Celebrates Freedom at Church,” NBC5i.com, 21 January 2007.
Glenna Whitley, “Jailhouse Rocked,” Dallas Observer, 25 January 2007.
Dwight Lewis, “Innocent behind Bars,” The Tennessean, 28 January 2007.
Hilzoy, “Heroes,” Obsidian Wings blog, 18 January 2007.