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Summer Books

Struggle to find peace after killing


By Antoinette Bosco
Orbis, 239 pages, $17


When the sheriff called to say that her son, John Bosco, and his wife, Nancy, had been murdered, Antoinette Bosco collapsed into shock and her life was irrevocably changed.

I read Antoinette Bosco’s book, Choosing Mercy: A Mother of Murder Victims Pleads to End the Death Penalty from the perspective of a mother, a mother whose son is also named John. The difference is, my son and I have been on the other end of the same human tragedy. My John murdered two people.

Bosco’s first chapter describes the crime and her initial reaction. She tells how shock, anger, grief and rage poked holes in her life after the senseless crime. The reader gets glimpses of Bosco’s private struggle with a sadness so profound that it almost turned to total despair.

Shadow Clark was charged with the Bosco murders. Almost immediately after learning that news, Bosco stepped back from her own anguish and looked into the face of Shadow Clark’s mother in a newspaper photograph. What she saw stunned her. The other mother’s face was a mirror image of Antoinette’s -- a face frozen in pain.

Bosco concluded that it is far worse to be the mother of someone who had taken a life than it is to have lost a loved one to murder. She vowed never to heap more pain onto this woman by asking that her son be killed by execution.

Still, Bosco continued struggling. The authorities never gave her any information about a motive for the crime. She wasn’t informed about Shadow Clark’s mental health evaluation, locked away in defense attorney files. Bosco is a journalist. Facts had always been important to her, yet the only details she gleaned about the crime were from newspaper articles and a sympathetic newspaper reporter.

Tormented by unanswered questions, she became obsessed in her search for answers. Her son John ultimately helped Antoinette find peace when one night he appeared in a spiritually symbolic dream. Bosco describes how she begged John to tell her why he had been killed. “Mom,” he responded. “What seems so important down here is not important where I am now.” She says she believes John’s message to her that “love” is more important in our lives than “answers.”

The writer and distraught mother began to realize that forgiveness was essentially as much for her own sanity as it was for the criminal. Forgiveness was the only way she could heal herself and not be consumed by primitive feelings. Anger and a desire for revenge, she says, would ultimately have killed the human being she was created to be. Instead, she says, the presence of God helped her forgive.

Bosco began praying, and praying all the time. She was trying to understand what God was calling her to do. She started attending meetings of Survivors of Homicide and was confronted by victims’ family members stuck in their feelings of rage. These folks believed they needed the closure of having the perpetrator executed before they could again find peace in their lives.

Bosco’s own stance is that what is “closed” can never be fully healed. She believes that in fully facing her own tragedy, rather than in trying to bring closure to it, she is engaging in the only healing process helpful to her. Her message is that Christ did not teach us how to kill, but rather how to die loving even those who put us to death.

Her passion comes across clearly in the remainder of her book. However, after the first three chapters, her ambitious agenda steers the reader away from the heart of her story. Although well researched, the book becomes encyclopedic about those engaged in the movement to end the death penalty in the United States. A reader not intimately familiar with death penalty abolitionists and murder victim family members could become bogged down and saturated in detail, losing the forest for the trees.

Bosco ventures off on a treatise about violence, incarceration, the politicization of the death penalty, the need for prison reform and crime in general. While these are important issues, as a reader I wanted to hear more about Antoinette Bosco’s personal story. I wanted to know the details of her spiritual struggle, of whether or not she attended the murder trial, and what that was like for her.

Instead, Bosco has channeled her grief into extensively researching and supporting the abolition of the death penalty. She calls for broad ranging reform in the criminal justice and penal systems.

Courageously, she has been willing to take a stand that is not popular. Not only has Bosco chosen mercy, as her title implies, she has dedicated her life to honoring her son and daughter-in-law by fearlessly shining a light in dark places and calling for social change.

If, at this point, you are asking what the issue is like from my side of the tragedy, I must confess, I, too, am deeply affected. My only son killed two people three years before Antoinette Bosco’s son and daughter-in-law were slain. There is no yardstick to measure or compare pain. I can’t know that it would be any easier to be in Bosco’s shoes than in my own. But, as I read her book, I saw many parallels in our lives. Both of us experienced emotions outside the margins of what is even imaginable, became obsessed with the death penalty and almost got stuck in the clutches of despair. Finally, our love for our sons is a common denominator.

I devoted eight years of my life doing everything I could to save my son from the execution chamber. Along the way, I struggled with my own spiritual belief system and eventually responded to a call to become an activist to end the death penalty.

John was one and a half years old when my husband and I first met him. His young life had been entrusted to the custody of a terribly flawed foster care system and he had lived as property of the state. Before the crime, John had never been violent. After he was sentenced to death, I pried open closed doors to access information that we had never known when adopting John. I learned that John’s mother had a serious alcohol problem during her pregnancy with him, that he had lived in 11 foster homes by the time he was 16 months old, and that he had inherited a long lineage of mental disorders from his birth family. John’s adult diagnosis of fetal alcohol syndrome and the plethora of his genetic issues convinced a compassionate resentencing judge to change John’s sentence from death to life in prison.

Today, John is again property of the state, but we have all been spared the violence of an execution. Antoinette Bosco and I both hold the strong belief that all human life is sacred and complex and that human beings are not constructed to kill one another. When we do kill, whether in our communities or in our execution chambers, something has gone terribly awry, and our souls are forever tarnished.

Although we have yet to meet, she and I are intricately linked. We both lost our sons -- one to murder, the other to prison. She did not choose to be an activist working to end the death penalty -- nor did I. Bosco’s book makes it clear that she will not be silenced until our government stops killing its sons and daughters -- nor will I.

As a leading death penalty abolitionist both in Arizona and nationally, Katherine Norgard serves on several death penalty abolition boards. She conducts death penalty sociodramas (an extemporaneous theater experience) and has participated in Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation alongside her husband, Don. She can be reached at k.norgard@att.net

National Catholic Reporter, May 11, 2001