Five decades after she was locked up for murder, Betty Smithey is free. At 69 years old, she served more time in prison than any other woman in U.S. history. I get this mental image of Morgan Freeman finally stepping outside those gray, concrete walls at Shawshank Prison. Only, we like Morgan Freeman.
Betty was locked up in 1963 after being convicted of murdering the 15-month old baby she was hired to care for. She was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. But the governor and the parole board in Arizona decided that she no longer represented a danger to society. And she was set free.
When I first heard about Betty I thought, how does this happen to a person? How do you take the gift of life and crumple it up like it’s junk mail? We get one shot on this earth and not only did Betty blow it for herself, she strangled the life out of a child. Who knows what that little girl may have grown up to accomplish? Imagine how many lives Betty changed in an instant.
Part of me wants her to rot in prison. Part of me says she doesn’t deserve a walk on the beach, an amazing meal or any other taste of freedom. Part of me doesn’t care that she endured a horrific childhood of abandonment, sexual and physical abuse by foster and adoptive parents. Part of me says, “Sorry Betty, die in prison and let God sort it out.”
Suddenly, I’m reminded of the power we all possess, but sadly rarely use; a force so powerful that it can free anyone regardless of where they are: the power of forgiveness.
In 1983, 20-years after her baby’s life was senselessly snuffed out by a psychotic young woman, Emma Simmons wrote a letter.
It has been almost twenty-one years since my baby daughter died. I have thought of you often in these years. Not with hate, as you may think, but with sadness, for I forgave you many years ago. Since I have come to know the Lord I felt I should write and tell you that I forgive you. I’m sending you this Bible in the hope that it will bring you peace and hope. May the Lord bless you and give you peace and the strength to know that Jesus loves you very much and is always there when you need Him.
~Erma (Gerberick) Simmons
It turns out Betty was freed long before she stepped out of prison this week. “She made me feel that I wasn’t a monster,” she said. “For the longest time, I couldn’t look myself in the mirror. But I felt like if she could forgive me for taking her child’s life, I could forgive myself.”
Forgiveness; it is a gift that was first given to us. And now we can choose to pass it on. Not so that bad people go free, but so that we free ourselves.
Now, that’s power.