WOULD YOU BELIEVE? – LIFE FOR A LIFE
Sunday 3rd of December, RTÉ One, 10.30pm
Could you ever imagine forgiving the murderer of your child and grandchild? Agnes Furey did just that. In the process, she not only gave the killer his life back, but rediscovered her own sense of purpose.
Agnes Furey is a retired Irish American nurse, whose daughter, Patricia, and 6 year old grandchild, Chris, were murdered in 1998 by Patricia’s ex-boyfriend, Leonard Scovens, while he was high on crack cocaine. Numb with grief, Agnes still refused to let anger and bitterness poison her life. Instead of demanding the death penalty, as so many families of violent crime victims do in Florida, she decided to reach out to the man who’d taken the lives of her loved ones.
She felt compelled to try to understand Leonard and to do whatever she could to heal the enormous hurt he had caused. She decided to write to him in the Florida prison where he was serving a natural life term for the double murder. Her letters were the start of a deep and improbable friendship that has changed both their lives. In the years since, although they have never been allowed by the prison authorities to meet, they have co-written a book, Wildflowers in the Median, and have worked together, inside and outside prison, to promote a system based on restorative justice, rather than mere retribution.
“After the murder of my daughter and grandson, initially I was very numb… [and] depressed,” says Agnes, but “over time I felt I really wanted to talk to this man. I wanted to understand, to know who he was.”
Leonard grew up in a violent home and became addicted to crack cocaine when he was 19. He met Patricia Reed in rehab. “I was a very sick young man… I was lost to drugs, guilt, rage and pain and I punished Pat for daring to love me.” He has never shied away from his responsibility for the double murder. “So many lives were destroyed and irrevocably hunted by my evil, senseless act. And I will continue to be sorry for, and regretful of, and haunted by, it until I am, myself, dead.”
Agnes and Leonard live in Florida, which has one of the most punitive criminal justice systems in America, with more than 300 people currently on Death Row. When Agnes started writing to Leonard, he was on close management and in solitary confinement. “My journey with Agnes really made the difference between my continuing down the road of depravity and insanity (…) or this path of restorative justice that she inspired me to walk.” Despite being refused permission to meet in person, they have exchanged hundreds of letters and speak regularly on the phone.
Agnes is a committed Christian, but it still took her ten difficult years to reach a place where she was ready to forgive Leonard for killing her daughter and grandchild. “You don’t have to forgive. But if you can follow a journey of understanding, you may get to forgiveness and that is an extra, added blessing. It doesn’t mean he is not accountable… It [his crime] is not acceptable and he has been convicted of that.”
Forgiveness was not a one-off gesture, but a daily commitment and challenge for both of them. “Agnes gave me an assignment many years ago,” says Leonard, “she challenged me to make a difference in prison and I took her up on that challenge.” Together, Leonard and Agnes have co-founded the restorative justice programme Achieve Higher Ground, which aims to transform the lives of prisoners and victims of crime through outreach and mutual engagement. Leonard has often met resistance to his work from the prison authorities, but he is refusing to give up the journey of reconciliation and forgiveness he started with Agnes. “Agnes, I’m so very proud and honoured to be your friend, and to have you in my life. This is my life, what we are doing. It will not stop with me. It will go on.”
Agnes, who is now 80, has not given up meeting Leonard someday. “I feel I need to meet him and know him, because he changed my life forever… I pray it will happen in my lifetime.”