Forgiving the Unforgivable

One man’s journey of faith compels him to forgive his brother’s killers.

(photo: Shutterstock)

Thirty-two years ago, while visiting home on a college break, Tim Jeffries received a phone call from the Colorado Springs, Colo., police department that forever changed his life.

His big brother and best friend, Michael, was dead at the age of 22 — stabbed 65 times on a remote hillside in the Colorado Rockies. Four bullies had taken their malice to the ultimate level of evil on Nov. 3, 1981.

Then came the hardest thing Jeffries, 18, ever had to do — tell his parents and younger brother that their beloved son and brother had been murdered. The next hardest thing he ever had to do would take him more than 25 years — forgiving the killers.

Jeffries remained locked in hatred until his involvement in the crime victims’ rights movement led him out of himself and brought him to the threshold of forgiveness. The final step, however, was a leap propelled by his Catholic faith.


Legislation for Victims

A successful business executive, Jeffries became active in the crime victims’ rights movement in 2007. He is currently the president of the National Organization for Victims’ Assistance and the National Justice Project.

Tim first advocated for “Life Means Life” truth-in-sentencing legislation in Arizona in 2007. It took five legislative sessions before it passed and was signed into law last year by Gov. Jan Brewer.

The law states that a life sentence for first-degree murder means “natural life,” thereby protecting surviving families and friends from the fear and trauma caused by the potential of future release hearings.

Jeffries is now involved in the effort to pass the Crime Victims’ Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. If passed, the 28th Amendment would guarantee crime victims the right to “fairness, respect and dignity” in the justice system by requiring “reasonable notice of … public proceedings relating to the offense to be heard at any release, plea, sentencing or other such proceeding,” and “reasonable notice of the release or escape of the accused, to due consideration of the crime victim’s safety and privacy and to restitution.”

This past April, the legislation  was introduced as “House Joint Resolution 40” with bipartisan support. It will need to pass the U.S. House and Senate and then be ratified by 38 of the 50 states before the Constitution is amended.

Opponents say that judges already have the option of imposing natural life, and it takes away options for different circumstances. Supporters point out that criminal defendants already have 23 constitutional rights, and it is due time for crime victims to also have constitutional rights.

Jeffries says he and others seek to balance the scale of justice for all. He says it without malice or hatred. But that was not always the case.


The Killers

“I once felt only hatred for those responsible for my brother’s brutal death,” he said. According to him, Michael had learning disabilities but was kind-hearted, which made him an easy target.

Shortly before Jeffries left their childhood home in Sacramento, Calif., in 1981 to attend Santa Clara University, Michael relocated to Colorado Springs. “One day, Michael was walking by a house where four transient low-lifes were squatting,” Tim explained. Michael was kidnapped, blindfolded, beaten and then driven to the mountains.

Michael fought for his life, but when he didn’t die after being stabbed 65 times, his skull was crushed by one of the killer’s boots. All four were apprehended, thanks to an informant, but only two were charged with the actual murder. One hung himself in jail, while the other was given a plea deal — life in prison with no release for at least 20 years.

At the first parole hearing 20 years later, the family fought successfully to keep the killer behind bars. They’ve had to do that two more times.

A year after the first hearing, Jeffries wondered why families had to be dragged back into the justice system and repeatedly relive their worst nightmares. While working on legislation to change that, he said he realized anger controlled a major part of his life. But he did not know how to let it go.


Getting to Forgiveness

The turning point was in 2006, on the 25th anniversary of Michael’s murder, during dinner with his friend Jesuit Father Gregory Bonfiglio. “What vexes me most was that Michael died a horrible death alone,” Jeffries tearfully told him.

“Tim, Michael did not die alone,” Father Bonfiglio responded. “Jesus was on the hill with him.”

At those words, the scales fell from Jeffries’ eyes. “As a Catholic, I should have known this and sought comfort in it,” he said.

“Father told me, ‘As Michael cried, Jesus cried; but yet, when Michael took his last breath, Jesus was there and rejoiced to take him home.’”

The words seared through Jeffries’ calloused heart. “Once I came to understand that, with his final breath, Michael was fine because he was with Jesus, I was finally ready to truly work on myself.”

“I knew I needed to forgive, and I begged God for his patience,” he recalled.

Shortly after Easter in 2008, Jeffries accepted a letter from Michael’s killer. When it arrived, he left it unopened for six months. During that time, Jeffries did much soul-searching and wrote a seven-page life confession, wanting to purify himself of all sin.

Jeffries opened the killer’s letter — also seven pages — on the 27th anniversary of Michael’s death. Expression of remorse poured out through neat, delicate penmanship by a hand that had stabbed another so many times.

“On the third page, my brother’s murderer talked about David and Bathsheba from the Bible — the same thoughts that I had meditated on during my time of preparation,” Jeffries said. “Whether genuine or not, that letter is one of the greatest blessings of my life. I know now Jesus Christ looked at me and said, ‘See, I am calling you to unite your cross with mine to help me save souls — but the first soul I need you to save is your own.’”

Through forgiveness, Jeffries says he has finally found true freedom: “If my brother’s murderer has truly experienced the broken heart of contrition, then Jesus has wrapped his arms around him and forgiven him. Jesus loves me and compels me to do no less.”

Patti Armstrong writes from North Dakota.

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