Should There Be Mercy For the Murderous?


It’s been 20 years since I sat across a conference table from the attorney representing Robert Alton Harris, a double-murderer who had spent 13 years on California’s Death Row.

The attorney hoped to make the case that, despite his crimes, Harris should be spared his scheduled date with the executioner. He related that the convicted murderer was born with fetal alcohol syndrome. That he was neglected as a child. That he was abused as an adolescent.

I’m sorry, I told the attorney. Your client killed two boys. He deserves to pay the forfeit for taking innocent lives.

And not long after that, Harris died in California’s gas chamber. His was the Golden State’s first execution since 1967.

I thought about Harris, the killer, after watching “Benji,” a documentary on the life and death of Chicago high school basketballer Ben Wilson, which debuted last month and re-aired yesterday on ESPN.

Wilson was rated the nation’s best in class in 1984. And just days before he was to begin his senior season, he got into a beef with two 16-year-old gang members, Billy Moore and Omar Dixon.

Moore pulled a .22-caliber pistol out of his waistband and shot 17-year-old Wilson twice. The high school basketball star died in the hospital.

Wilson’s murder made national news. And nearly three decades later, the circumstances of his premature death has made for a most poignant documentary.

Yet, what I found most poignant was not Wilson’s tragic story. Not his funeral, which drew more than 10,000 mourners. Not the grace with which the young man’s mother, a devout Christian, comported herself after her son was violently taken from her.

But the redemptive story of Billy Moore, young Ben Wilson’s killer.

Moore was sentenced to 40 years in prison for Wilson’s murder. He spent 19 years behind bars before being granted parole in 2004.

Agreeing to appear in the documentary, Moore remembered praying that Wilson would survive the shooting that would claim his life. Perhaps, he said,  praying as hard as the victim’s mother.

At his sentencing, Moore said, he spoke to Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, Ben’s grieving parents.  “I gave them my deepest apology,” Moore said. “I didn’t want to be the one who stole (their son’s) dream.”

Today, Moore is a youth counselor. In 2009, he actually was recognized as a successful example of rehabilitation in a White House ceremony.

Twenty years ago, I would have argued that Moore should have been tried as an adult in Ben Wilson’s death and, if convicted, sentenced to life in prison, if not sentenced to death. I also would have strenuously objected to his parole, after serving little less than half sentence he actually received.

But my thinking has evolved over the past two decades.

I now believe there is no one beyond God’s redemption. Indeed, His Word promises: “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.”

Billy Moore, the reformed killer, is living proof.


  1. It brings to light the statement: Hate the sin, not the sinner. For mere mortal men we have the obstacle of our humanness to overcome. God however, sees the real heart of a man.
    Repentance and forgiveness is one of the most beautiful actions we can ever experience. I mistakenly started to write forgiveness and repentance and quickly realized that without repentance, there is no forgiveness.
    It’s a glorious story to hear about someone so low, calling on his Saviour and asking forgiveness and salvation and God completes the request.
    I only can equate it with this:

    Zec 3:1 And he shewed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to resist him.
    Zec 3:2 And the LORD said unto Satan, The LORD rebuke thee, O Satan; even the LORD that hath chosen Jerusalem rebuke thee: is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?
    Zec 3:3 Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments, and stood before the angel.
    Zec 3:4 And he answered and spake unto those that stood before him, saying, Take away the filthy garments from him. And unto him he said, Behold, I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will clothe thee with change of raiment.
    Zec 3:5 And I said, Let them set a fair mitre upon his head. So they set a fair mitre upon his head, and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the LORD stood by.

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