Mother shares story of forgiveness at death penalty program in Omaha
Two women – two mothers – met and without a word, shared an embrace and many tears.
Their bond was the death of a child. But their stories were much different.
One of the mothers had lost a son to suicide after he confessed to the murders of four people – three children – in Montana in the early 1970s. The other mother – Marrieta Jaeger-Lane – was the parent of one of his victims, 7-year-old Suzie.
Jaeger-Lane shared her story at St. Cecilia Cathedral Parish Center in Omaha Oct. 24 during the first of three gatherings on the death penalty sponsored by the Nebraska Catholic Conference (NCC) and the Catholic Mobilizing Network. The gatherings – also held in Grand Island and Lincoln – were part of an effort by the NCC and the Mobilizing Network urging voters Nov. 8 to end the death penalty in Nebraska.
Joe D’Ambrosio, who spent 20 years on Ohio’s death row for murder before being exonerated, also was on the program, arguing the numbers of people found innocent on death row suggest there are others sentenced to death who are not guilty.
Jaeger-Lane said her journey to forgiveness began a few weeks after her daughter was kidnapped from a family camping site in Montana. Furious about the loss of her daughter and wanting to kill the person responsible, she said God told her, "but that’s not how I want you to feel."
That spiritual encounter began a long process of wrestling with God. "I couldn’t forgive," she said, "but I gave God permission to change my heart."
And a year later, that forgiveness played a role in the capture of the man who kidnapped and killed her daughter. Jaeger-Lane said the killer called on the anniversary of the kidnapping "to taunt me."
"But he wasn’t counting on my spiritual journey" and her forgiveness, she said. They talked for more than an hour, he broke down and cried and comments he made led to his capture.
At Jaeger-Lane’s request, the death penalty was not sought, but instead a life sentence without the possibility of parole was offered for a confession. The killer confessed to her daughter’s murder and three others in Montana. Four hours after the confession, he committed suicide.
Since that time – for the past 42 years – and guided by her Catholic faith, Jaeger-Lane has been a spokesperson in efforts across the country to end the death penalty, with a focus on justice.
She said justice is found in Jesus, and his justice is about helping, reconciling and restoring, not about revenge.
"All life is sacred," she said. "To kill someone in her (Suzie’s) name would not honor her."
The families of victims have a right to the feelings of revenge, "but our laws should call us all to more noble purposes."
D’Ambrosio was sentenced to death in what he called the shortest capital crime trial on record – just 2¾ days. The former Marine said from the time of his arrest to the trial and even after he was in prison, he thought someone would open the door and set him free. But that didn’t happen.
The appeals began almost immediately, but all were denied. Then, he said, "God sent an angel" in the person of Father Neil Kookoothe, a pastor from a nearby parish who visited death row inmates. Father Kookoothe also is a nurse and a lawyer, and met with D’Ambrosio at the suggestion of another inmate.
Other appeals were filed and D’Ambrosio was freed six years ago. The Supreme Court set aside the conviction in 2012, citing the prosecution’s decision to withhold evidence that would have cleared him.
When he was freed, he was the sixth Ohio death row inmate to be exonerated and the 140th across the country. Since that time, 16 others have been freed. Those numbers suggest, D’Ambrosio said, there are others on death row who are innocent, even some who have been executed, and that’s why he speaks out on the need to end the death penalty.
"If this can happen to me, it can happen to anyone," he said.
Archbishop George J. Lucas also called for the end of the death penalty in his welcome to begin the program.
He spoke of the need for mercy, the Nebraska bishop’s stand against the death penalty and their call to vote to retain the Legislature’s 2015 repeal of the death penalty.
Justice and mercy go side by side, the archbishop said, and always includes prayers and support for the victims’ families.
"We pray that the Holy Spirit will touch our hearts to understand human life and the dignity of life," he said.