I knew that we had a death penalty in this country, but being a busy mom, I never did anything about it or gave it much thought. I was raised to believe that all life was sacred. Our Fifth Commandment says “Thou shalt not Kill” and there were no footnotes or exceptions. I knew that the two greatest commandments were to love God and love your neighbor, and I believed that meant I could not kill them. The death penalty just did not make sense to me. Then one day, the death penalty came into my home and threatened the life of my oldest child, and destroyed the childhood for his siblings.
My oldest son, Justin Wolfe, had gotten involved with selling marijuana when he was in high school. He bought marijuana from a young man named Danny and sold to another named Owen. One night, just before Justin’s 20th birthday, Owen shot and killed Danny. Owen was arrested in California three weeks later and brought back to Manassas, where he was questioned every day and threatened with the death penalty. At the end of two weeks of questioning, he was convinced that the only way to save himself from the death penalty was to say that someone asked him to do it. So he blamed Justin.
When Justin called to tell me he was turning himself in, I collapsed to the floor. I have to admit, I respected him for accepting responsibility for his actions in order to clear his name of this horrible crime. He assured me, “Mom, they think I had something to do with Danny’s death, so I am going to turn myself in. Now, I may have to face some drug charges, but it will be a first offense marijuana charge. I should be home in a few days. I just have to clear my name of this murder. Please, don’t worry.” We trusted the system and believed the truth would set him free. But after a trial that lasted three weeks, the jury deliberated just one hour and found him guilty of murder for hire. Justin was sentenced to death.
I could not go out of the house for many weeks. I was devastated, exhausted, embarrassed and so very sad. As a mother, I had failed to protect my children. I couldn’t face anyone. I went to different grocery stores, a different church. The murder trial was all over the local papers, which said horrible things about my son. It seemed like there was no place that I could turn where I wasn’t bombarded with it. Before the arrest, I had always been very active with the kids – volunteering, coaching, room mom, and whatever else needed to be done. Now my job as mother is consumed with protecting my children from the horrible truth that our state is working really hard to kill their big brother, a brother they love and looked up to; trying to help them grow up to be normal” when the death penalty has stripped “normal” from their lives.
My time is consumed with saving Justin’s life, and the fight to end the death penalty. I travel often with a group called the Journey of Hope, from Violence to Healing; a group consisting of murder victims’ family member who oppose the death penalty, family members of the people on death rows from across the country, and men who lost years of their lives to the death penalty – exonerated of their crimes and now finally free. We talk about how the death penalty does not bring the healing that someone needs after losing a loved one to murder, and how the death penalty only creates more victims.
We have many in the community that support us; yet it still hurts that there are those former friends that no longer want anything to do with us. We were not welcome at some neighborhood functions and some people blatantly looked the other way as we passed. In some ways, I understand. It was hard for me to talk about it, so I can imagine it would be hard to know just what to say. But I always felt a simple “hello” would have been nice.
Last July, a Federal court judge finally recognized that Justin is innocent of this crime and vacated his sentences. Unfortunately, the state is appealing this decision, so he still sits on death row, in isolation, where he has been for 11 years now, and will celebrate his 31st birthday on March 17. The Fourth Circuit Court hearing is scheduled for May 17, and we continue to hope.
I know God has a plan for Justin and our family. I pray every day that I can follow His lead and do as He asks, to be His servant with this cross He has given. Each day, I pray the Our Father and focus on and sometimes struggle with the words – “Thy will be done.” Those words carry so much meaning and responsibility for me. But I have to believe that God will carry us as we carry this cross. I know that one day Justin will come home; he will be free of that place. What I don’t know is who will he come home to – me, or our Father in heaven. I hope he will get another chance at life here with us, but I know I have to trust in God’s plan, whatever that is.
I know that we do not need to become the murderers we lock up to protect ourselves. People who commit crimes need to be held accountable, and society deserves to be protected. But our prisons are capable of doing that without taking another life. Justin’s story is a prime example of how the system does not work. There are many days I stop and wonder how this happened in our lives. I know this cross was given to us for a reason and I pray I carry it well. I hope we can use our situation to help other young people make better decisions for themselves. I hope somehow we can help demonstrate the flaws of our system and prove that the death penalty is cruel, unnecessary and only creates more victims of violence. We can only hope somehow we can make a difference.
Maybe His plan is for Justin’s story to make a difference in the lives he touches. I know he has made a difference for the men on the row, as he tries to make the best of each day, positive and upbeat and is always looking out for the weaker ones there. As we head into the feast of the most famous execution of the innocent, may we reflect on the death penalty, and the lessons Jesus came to teach us: “Love one another as I have loved you” and “Whatever you do to the least of our brothers, you do to me.”
I have stood in the field, holding hands with the mother or family member as their loved one is being killed by our state. No family should have to endure that pain. I have looked into the eyes of “the least of my brothers,” and I know the person I see is more than the person who committed a horrible crime. He, too is a child of God, loved by God, and his family. And the question should not be “do they deserve to die for what they did,” the question is “do we have the right to kill them?” I believe we are called to do better, and I pray you will join me in the fight to end this cycle of violence we call the death penalty.
Please let your legislators know that you respect life – all life – and we do not need or want a death penalty in our beautiful state. Let them know you would prefer your tax dollars to go to supporting life, not death, to supporting victim’s families, not creating more victims. And I ask you to please keep my family in your prayers, along with our lawyers, the students and professors at The Innocence Project at UVA and the judges that hear his case on May 17.