Mercy in action: wife forgives husband's killer

>> Thursday, October 29, 2009

LUBBOCK, Texas (CNS) -- On July 9, 2007, while unloading groceries in his garage, Don McCullough noticed a young man hurrying along the sidewalk and perspiring on the hot day. McCullough called out and offered the stranger a bottle of the water he was carrying in his grocery sack.

Alonzo Lewis took the water, left, then returned. He robbed and killed Don McCullough, stabbing the 73-year-old retired Air Force colonel more than 30 times.

McCullough's wife, Margaret Mary, heard the commotion and called 911. When Lewis, now 27, was arrested at his workplace, holding some of McCullough's property, the local media reported widespread shock and outrage.

More than two years later, Margaret Mary McCullough confronted her husband's murderer and the story, once again, caused an uproar. This time, however, it wasn't shock and outrage. It was astonishment and awe. She told Lewis that she has forgiven him.

Lewis pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in mid-September. Lubbock County Criminal District Attorney Matt Powell offered the deal after speaking with McCullough's family.

Don and Margaret Mary McCullough were "among the most devout and active Catholics in the Diocese of Lubbock," said Deacon Leroy Behnke, diocesan director of communications. "In addition to serving in just about every ministry and on just about every committee in their home parish, Don McCullough had the distinction of serving as the very first president of the Diocesan Pastoral Council. I've heard several people say it was Don's heartfelt commitment to the corporal works of mercy that brought about his, their word, 'martyrdom.'"

Last September, Father Jerry Kenney, the pastor of St. John Neumann in Lubbock, and parish leaders invited Bishop Placido Rodriguez of Lubbock to preside at a dedication ceremony for the Don McCullough Education Center, a new classroom addition to their church facilities.

After learning of the kindness she extended to her husband's killer, Bishop Rodriguez wrote a letter to Margaret Mary McCullough, thanking her for the witness given by her family.

"Despite enduring unimaginable, heartbreaking grief, you (Margaret Mary) and members of your family displayed remarkable grace as you addressed Alonzo Lewis after he pled guilty to murdering the father of your children," wrote the bishop. "When you said you hoped he would accept Jesus into his life and go to heaven when he dies so he would have the opportunity to face Don 'once again and tell him how sorry you are,' you spoke with the countercultural conviction of a true saint."

Bishop Rodriguez later met with Powell to commend him for his role in the agreement. During their visit, the bishop presented Powell with a copy of "Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice," a statement by the U.S. Catholic bishops.

"Bishop Rodriguez says that our society's response to crime is a challenge for our church -- and a moral test for our nation," said Deacon Behnke. "He is grateful to District Attorney Powell for his willingness to accept life without parole instead of execution for Alonzo Lewis. The bishops' statement explains our Catholic teachings and advocacy and explains the reasons for his gratitude."

Members of the McCullough family said they have thanked the district attorney for helping them through such a difficult time and allowing them to move on.

Bishop Rodriguez said the family deserves a profound expression of gratitude, too.

"Thank you," he wrote to the widow, her three daughters and two sons. "With this forgiving and life-affirming imitation of ... Jesus Christ, you consecrate Don's memory, you inspire our neighbors, and you bless your bishop along with this local church, the Diocese of Lubbock, which Don served so well."

Bishop Rodriguez noted that the Catholic Church "teaches that state-sanctioned execution of capital criminals can be a moral option." But it also teaches, he said, that the "fact that it can be done doesn't mean it should be done."

"As Jesus taught with his words and revealed in his actions, the only true road to justice and peace passes through mercy," he added. "Neither justice nor peace can be served by adding violence to violence. Mercy must prevail."

Rick Wardroup, the attorney for Lewis, said he has "never seen a classier family than (the McCullough) family."

Bishop Rodriguez concurs. "It's an honor for your bishop to agree with (his) sentiments," said the bishop. "We thank God for you (Margaret Mary), we cherish the memory of your heroic husband and we pray for your family."


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