On Death Row, He Got a Letter That 'Brought Me to My Knees'

'Atlantic' story relays tale of forgiveness offered to a murderer from his victim's granddaughter
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 11, 2023 8:00 AM CDT
Filled With Rage at Grandma's Killer, She Wrote a Letter
Stock photo.   (Getty Images/PATCHARIN SIMALHEK)

One effective way to wrangle with tough emotions is to keep a journal, but for Sarah Gregory, she channeled her rage into a letter—one sent to her grandmother's killer, now on death row in Alabama. As told to Elizabeth Bruenig in her piece for the Atlantic, Gregory recalls the fury she felt for years toward James Barber after he murdered her grandmother, 75-year-old Dorothy Epps, in her Alabama home while high on alcohol and drugs in May 2001 (he says he doesn't fully remember what happened). Then, in the fall of 2020, Gregory decided to purge her anger and write Barber a note offering forgiveness. "I am tired of carrying this pain, hate, and rage in my heart," she wrote. When Barber received her note at the Holman Correctional Facility, he says it "brought me to my knees." He wrote back to Gregory, telling her that, except for the time he "forced the county jail to be baptized," receiving her letter "was the single most edifying, uplifting moment that I have experienced."

After that correspondence, everything shifted. Gregory said her anger level dropped to "zero," and they soon started talking on the phone monthly, even sometimes weekly. "These people had experienced something profoundly, transcendently emotional; there, where the most justified anger and hatred had been, was something growing that looked like love," Bruenig writes. Now, Barber says, "I love that girl more than I love anybody else in this world." They never discuss his upcoming execution, set for next month, but Gregory tells Bruenig that now she wishes it wasn't going to happen. "I spent so long believing in 'an eye for an eye'—I've changed," she says. Barber, for his part, says he's at peace with what's coming, and not afraid. And Bruenig's take? "It is in the nature of American justice that anger can end a life, yet forgiveness cannot necessarily save one. But then again, maybe it already has." Read the full piece here. (More Longform stories.)

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