The same day that the Israeli Supreme Court ruled Ehud Yatom unfit to serve as Prime Minister Sharon’s anti-terrorism advisor due to his involvement in the "Bus 300" incident 17 years ago, the New York Times carried two articles raising similar issues of how present is the past. (Yatom, then a senior officer in the General Security Services, bludgeoned to death two terrorists taken alive from a bus they had held hostage.)
Nearly three decades ago, as reported in the Times, James J. Hamm, a 26-year-old pothead drifter, and an accomplice lured two men into an Arizona desert on the pretense of selling them drugs. There they shot them through the head and took their money. In exchange for his guilty plea, Hamm was sentenced to 25 years in prison (and paroled after 17 years).
While in prison, Hamm determined to make as much as himself as he could. He graduated from college with a 3.964 average, married a former county court judge, and together with her worked on six successful federal suits against the State Department of Corrections.
After graduation, he went to law school, passed the Arizona bar, and now only awaits approval by the Bar’s Committee on Character and Fitness. Many Arizona lawyers, however, are outraged at the thought of Hamm joining their "noble profession," just as they were at outraged by his admission to law school.
I would have had no problem had Arizona decided to execute Hamm for his crime. A Jew is required to give up his life rather than transgress commit three sins: murder, idolatry, and certain forbidden sexual relationships. Rabbi Judah Loewe, the Maharal of Prague, explains that each person must strive to perfect himself in three realms: in his relationship to his fellow man, in his relationship to G-d, and in his relationship to himself. The three cardinal sins represent the absolute antithesis of that goal, and therefore it is better to give up one’s life rather than transgress them.
The premeditated murderer denies any value to another’s life. Society is permitted to express its collective horror at his deed by taking the murderer’s life.
The Torah punishment for premeditated murder, however, is not predicated on any assumption that the murderer is irredeemable or could never contribute to society. As Hamm’s life proves, no one is without the potential to change himself in very dramatic ways.
While I would not have opposed Hamm’s execution 27 years ago, Arizona did not sentence him to death. His life since then testifies to his repentance and his determination to do as much with the rest of his life as possible. His transformation is a moving testament to the inherent power in every human being to transform himself. No purpose would be served today by adding an additional penalty to the one he has already paid.
In the same day’s Times appeared the story of Peter Wade. An abused child, Wade was already a alcoholic druggie by 15, when he a group of similarly stoned friends decided one night to throw the switch on the local train tracks. That act resulted in a six-car train plummeting off the tracks and the death of the conductor, John Duffy, the father of six.
Tried as an adult, Wade spent 22 months in jail. Upon his release, he went to college and eventually rose to being a $1,000,000 per year bond trader on Wall Street. Now he is making a movie about his life.
Wade’s age, his history of severe abuse by his father, and his lack of premeditation all properly argued against a more serious punishment for him. And one cannot help but be impressed by his ability to pull himself back from the brink.
Yet Wade’s story inspires me much less than Hamm’s. Only recently, in the course of his 8-weekly therapy sessions did he begin to understand the pain of the family of the man who died as a consequence of his actions. Even while living in a $4,400/month apartment, with two other houses to his name, it does not seem to have occurred to him to contact John Duffy’s family or to send them a check.
Most of us are forced at some point to confront the fact that the past is never completely past. The bad that we do can never be entirely erased because our deeds have consequences. But Wade has not even begun to try.