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.