Sixteen years later, that day still played in my head as clear as a Blu-ray movie. I still saw Frank’s raised eyebrows when, in broad daylight, he announced, “We’re taking that.” A nine-millimeter semi-automatic stuck out of his jeans pocket. I believed he intended to take a large duffle bag of marijuana that was in the back of my truck from my friend without paying a dime. At the time, I didn’t know he hadn’t chambered a round in his pistol.
I flashed. My eyes scanned for a way to flip the situation. It came when he left me standing behind my black SUV in that strip-mall parking lot to go help his homeboy load the bag in their vehicle, I grabbed a gun out of the truck and ran up firing a barrage of shots at him. I hit his homeboy Ant.
Even after Frank jumped into a red Ford, I fired. Car windows shattered as I continued blasting without waiting to see if he was just trying to get away. In my mind, he still had that gun and they had property that didn’t belong to them on their back seat so, under the code of the streets, he had every bullet coming.
When I heard my actions critically wounded Ant and killed Frank, I felt a twinge of pain but quickly burned it off with angry thoughts like, ‘What did I have to feel guilty about? That’s how the game go when you play dirty.’
I had used anger growing up to suppress other emotions, like fear and empathy. While living in a Brooklyn neighborhood full of housing projects, I used anger to overcome the terror I felt from living in the same area as the guy who shot my little brother. I used rage to overcome empathy so that I could strike first against Frank and never become the victim -again.
At trial, I pleaded self-defense and lost. The prosecutor recommended a sentence of 40-years to life.
Frank’s family lined up to speak their piece. They spoke about raising Frank’s son to forgive while asking the judge to give me double life. I had killed their loved one and they wanted me to suffer forever.
Emotions overloaded me. Their words stung as they rubbed in my going to prison forever, which mortified me. Prison meant facing an environment where violence ruled, where I needed to be violent to survive, where I couldn’t help raise my sons. I responded in cuffed hands with the only defense I had – anger.
My body shook as I said, “Do you want me to trade places with him? Exodus 22 verse 2, ‘When a thief is smitten so that he dies, there is no guilt for his death for it is not murder.”’
I had lost my mind.
The judge’s eyes bored into me as he exercised his discretion to hand down a sentence of 55 years to life.
Seventeen years later, I found myself taking a Guiding Rage Into Power [GRIP] self- help group. I sat in a circle with a remorse letter to Frank’s family on my lap. It’s a letter that I struggled to write.
With the help of therapeutic self-help groups like Restorative Justice, I had grown over the years and that growth showed in how I wouldn’t touch a weapon and in how much guilt I felt for leaving my sons and Frank’s without their father; how much sorrow I felt for breaking my mother’s heart, and harming my community. However, when it came to Frank, my mind still flashed to what I believed was a robbery attempt.
Inside the GRIP meeting at San Quentin State Prison sat about thirty men serving life sentences, mostly for murder.
Susan, the hippie-middle age facilitator, asked, “Who still hasn’t read their remorse letter?”
I had stalled for weeks, but that day I raised my hand and she called on me.
Aloud, I read a letter that apologized for taking their loved one’s life because no bag was worth his life or my freedom. I mentioned knowing how they felt because my father died when I was 12 and I saw my little brother shot while I ran, when I was 17. I expressed how much harm I know I caused Frank’s son because I can see it in my sons.
Upon reading the last sentence, Susan paused as she gathered her words.
“A remorse letter isn’t about what you went through, it’s about showing you realize how much pain you caused and taking responsibility.”
She went on to say in nice terms that my so-called remorse letter sucked.
I came clean. “I struggle with feeling remorse for Frank because, if he didn’t try to pull that move, he’d be alive and I wouldn’t be here.”
A brother from Chicago sided with me. “I can’t feel remorse for somebody who betrayed me either. My victim tried to kill me and the courts gave me life.”
“Yeah, remorse is what you feel when you did something wrong. There is nothing wrong with stopping a robbery.” Tears welled up and started to overflow out of my mask until anger torched them into vapor.
Susan, a survivor of crime herself, respected the honesty. “Growth doesn’t come overnight. The fact that you are talking about this will help you get there in your own time.”
I wanted to connect to the remorse buried deeply inside me, but I still hadn’t accepted full responsibility for my actions because to do so would mean facing the fact that I had destroyed a human being over nothing.
At the end of class, Susan mentioned that next week there would be a guest who had survived violent crimes committed against her sons.
Seven days raced past. When Ursula, the lady Susan mentioned entered the room, I didn’t know what to expect. The middle-age Black women wore a scarf wrapped around her curly brown hair that gave her an Afrocentric look. Dignity and forgiveness radiated from the top of her being to the hem of her dress.
She took a seat next to the facilitators as the rest of us sat in chairs that formed a semi-circle around them. The 30 men, with a combined sentence of over 800 years, waited in suspense to hear about the tragic events that bonded us together.
She spoke in a soft clear voice about two men who walked up to her older son’s car and opened fire. They hit him 17 times.
My chin dropped and I looked at the ground, eyes filled with water that I fought to keep from dripping out.
Her voice stayed calm as fresh tears streamed down her face. She paused mid-sentence and continued on speaking about racing to the hospital, praying that her son made it through.
Her son survived, but lives with post-traumatic stress disorder.
She has a background in law enforcement but didn’t use the system to seek revenge.
“I could choose to be bitter, but I chose to be better,” she said about forgiving the person who nearly eliminated her first born.
I couldn’t look her in the eyes. I wanted to hug her, but, besides being against the rules, I felt like she wouldn’t want a hug from me if she knew that I too shot up a 20- something-year-old Black man inside his car. I thought how could she be in that room with us; how could she forgive us knowing the types of crimes we committed.
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There was more. Next, she recounted the day she learned someone murdered her youngest son.
My head popped up. Tears fell openly at the thought of how so much had happened to such a loving, beautiful person.
For the first time in my life, I felt what it meant to take another Black man’s life. Before that moment, violence seemed cartoonish, like no human being really got hurt. I had fired some shots, and fled the scene without seeing any blood fall; without seeing a paramedic exerting himself, physically and emotionally, trying to save a life I already doomed; without seeing the detective who had to tell Frank’s family; without seeing his son’s mother tell her child that his dad is dead; without going to the funeral; without seeing his mother’s tears.
Suddenly the excuses I hid my humanity behind fell apart. The fact is that I carried a gun, I met up with them in a parking lot and I killed Frank for practically nothing.
No one else ever moved me so much. I had met other crime survivors in other groups. I felt the loss of the other women, admired their ability to forgive, but the crimes committed against their loved ones, [rape/murder, rape/home-invasion, gang banging) weren’t the type I committed. In this Black woman’s story of Black men gunning down her sons, I clearly saw the genocide I had contributed too and its effect on Frank’s mother, on Ant’s mother, and on my mother. She touched uncharted areas in my heart.
That night I wrote the following remorse letter:
I know I am the last person you want to hear from. I felt compelled to write this letter to truly apologize for all the pain and lost I have caused you on April 12, 2000.
For years I hid behind false justifications because I didn’t want to face the selfish, inexcusable act I committed. Facing the truth of my actions means living with the fact I slaughtered your son on my conscious. After seeing the full effect of my actions in the tears of another mother who lost a son to gun violence, I can no longer blame anyone else for what I did.
I take full responsibility – Frank didn’t do anything deserving of death and I fully deserve to spend the rest of my life in prison. He never planned to kill me. I overreacted.
I can only imagine how much pain you feel when his birthday comes around and you are reminded of the day I stole your son from you. Nothing I offer can ever replace your loss.
I offer the best I can, a humble apology for being selfish, for shooting him five times, for running from the scene instead of trying to get him medical help, for lacking empathy, remorse, and compassion for his life and yours. I apologize for altering the course of his life and yours, and for shattering his dreams and yours. Again, I am truly sorry.
If you have any questions, I am willing to answer them through the appropriate authorities.
Rahsaan Thomas #T99595
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, CA 94974