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  • Doug Tjapkes

2021: Year of burying the hatchet?

While fighting to free Maurice Carter, at the turn of the century, I learned some important lessons about forgiveness. I’ll not forget when a consortium of Innocence Project professionals decided to conduct a public seminar on the fallacies of eyewitness identification to focus attention on our case. It would be held on the campus of Andrews University, right in Berrien County where Maurice had been wrongly convicted. I was floored to learn that one of the nation’s leading experts on the topic, Dr. Gary Wells of Iowa, would coordinate this program on our behalf. That’s when I first met Jennifer Thompson, who came to share her story. DNA testing cleared a man, 22 year old Ronald Cotton, whom she positively identified as her rapist, and who served 10 years. But that wasn’t the end of the story. Jennifer explains that she humbly begged for forgiveness. And Ronald, who could have remained bitter over the ordeal, was big enough to forgive. They later co-authored the best-selling book Picking Cotton...a must read. Both of them came to Grand Haven some years ago for our lecture series. Beautiful people! I got to thinking about that the other day when I read a fine newspaper column by Alabama free-lance writer Leslie Anne Tarabella. She recalled that rather obscure 2020 story where Christian Cooper, a black man, was in Manhattan’s Central Park bird-watching when he politely asked a white woman to put a leash on her dog, as the law required. The woman, instead, called police, screeching on her cell phone, “An African American man is threatening my life!” Police sorted it out, and some friends urged Cooper to get even. However, he refused to file false report charges and publicly shame the complainant. “She shouldn’t have to live with her mistake the rest of her life,” he quietly told reporters. I am astounded when one after another of my friends gets released from prison---perhaps wrongly convicted, probably over-charged or over-sentenced--- and decides against any future retaliation, choosing, instead, to bury the hatchet. Prisoners have taught me a powerful lesson that theologian Frederick Buechner describes this way: When somebody you've wronged forgives you, you're spared the dull and self-diminishing throb of a guilty conscience. When you forgive somebody who has wronged you, you're spared the dismal corrosion of bitterness and wounded pride. Three Ps were at the heart of most of our shouting at each other in 2020: politics, pandemic and police misconduct. It’s a new year, time for all of us to find that “kinder, gentler nation” that former President George H.W. Bush described. Please join me in digging a pit for the hatchet.

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