Wednesday, October 7, 2009

In Memoriam: Richard Nethercut

We are saddened to learn of the death of MVFHR member Richard Nethercut, who had been reported missing a couple of weeks ago. Yesterday we got the news of his death, and we want to take a few moments to remember him here.

Dick's daughter, Jaina, had been murdered in 1978, and Dick became an outspoken opponent of the death penalty. Here is part of the testimony he gave as part of an MVFHR panel speaking against reinstatement of the death penalty in Massachusetts in 2007:

As a murder victim family member, I oppose the reinstatement of the death penalty, which from my perspective will only add to the suffering of the victim’s family rather than lessen it. My daughter, Jaina Nethercut, was raped and murdered in a Seattle hotel on January 15, 1978 at age nineteen. … The rape and murder of a 19-year-old could carry the death penalty under this bill. This is the last thing my wife and I would have wanted because it would do violence to us and what we stand for to execute our daughter’s killer.

And here is an excerpt from the book Bone to Pick: Of Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Reparation, and Revenge, by Ellis Cose:

A thin, angular man in his seventies with dark, mostly receded hair and a gentle, earnest manner, Nethercut spends much of his time these days working with prisoners. It was a path he could not have foreseen while growing up in Wisconsin during the 1930s. After serving two years in the army during World War II, he earned a master's degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and eventually ended up in Hong Kong, as a foreign service officer. In Shanghai in 1960, Nethercut and his wife, Lorraine, adopted a two-year-old girl of Russian descent.

Eight years later, Nethercut was assigned to the State Department's Washington headquarters. Their daughter, Eugenia-or Jaina, as they called her-had trouble adjusting to America. Nonetheless, she made it through high school and decided to go to Washington State University. But instead of focusing on her studies, Jaina began hanging out with a sleazy crowd. And in January 1978, she ended up in a welfare hotel in Seattle, apparently looking for marijuana.

She went to the room of a man she reportedly had met the previous night. The man, stoned out of his head, attacked her. She struggled. She managed to get out of the door; but she was dragged back in, raped, and strangled with a pair of stockings. It was Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. Jaina was nineteen years old.

The news left Nethercut angry, shocked, and struggling with feelings of powerlessness. He also felt a great deal of guilt. For Jaina's move out west seemed, at least in part, an attempt to distance herself from her family. She wasn't even using the family name, which, for Nethercut, was a source of shame.

Police captured the assailant immediately. And though Nethercut couldn't bear to go to the trial, he was happy the man was sentenced to life in prison. Still, Nethercut was unable to put the tragedy behind him. He was depressed, and his State Department career seemed stalled. Though only in his midfifties, he took early retirement two years after Jaina's death and moved to Concord, his wife's hometown, the place where his daughter was buried.

Shortly after the move, Nethercut felt an inexplicable desire to contact the man who had murdered his daughter. He wrote to the chaplain at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Washington. Weeks later the chaplain called as the murderer waited to get on the line. The conversation lasted roughly ten minutes. Nethercut scarcely remembers what was said. He does recall that the conversation was awkward. "We both danced around the issue. We were quite polite with each other. I wanted to learn more and I didn't learn more. . . . I couldn't understand what had happened." The man expressed regret and yet never acknowledged his crime, and certainly didn't provide the explanation and apology Nethercut so desperately craved. Nevertheless, Nethercut muttered words - insincere though they were - of forgiveness.

The men exchanged Christmas cards a few times; but there was no real relationship to maintain-and no release from the confusion and impotence Nethercut felt. For years, he bottled up his emotions: "I kept my daughter's death to myself. I suppressed it. I didn't go through an authentic grieving process." He blamed himself for being a bad father and wallowed in anger and guilt. Finally, he got psychiatric help for his depression; and he got more involved in the activities of his Congregationalist church.

At a religious retreat in 1986 Nethercut had an encounter that radically changed his life. A Catholic bishop suggested that he become part of a prison Bible fellowship program. The idea strongly appealed to Nethercut, who was searching for a way to fill "the hole in my soul . . . I really wanted to do something positive." Several years later, he got involved in the Alternatives to Violence Program, a two-and-a-half-day immersion experience that brings together prisoners and outsiders to role-play, confess, confide, empathize, and explore ideas about the causes-and cures-for violence. In one of those sessions Nethercut got a chance to role-play the part of the man who had murdered Jaina.

In the exercise, he went before the pretend parole board to make his case for freedom; and for the first time, he felt he understood some part of the man who had killed his daughter. It was unexpectedly empowering.

In 2001, at a national conference of the Alternatives to Violence Program, Nethercut met another man who had murdered a woman. That man, who was no longer in prison, had reached out to the family of the women he had killed; and the family had refused his apology. As the killer and Nethercut talked of their respective experiences, they realized they could help each other. Shortly thereafter they went through a ceremony with a victim-offender mediator. His new friend apologized for the murder and Nethercut accepted. The ritual served its purpose: "I no longer feel the need to hear directly from the man himself."

Nethercut's life has come to revolve around his volunteer work in prison-and in promoting prison reform and nonviolence. It is his way of honoring his daughter, of "giving a gift of significance to my daughter's life." He sees in many of the young prisoners and ex-offenders something of his daughter. "They are angry, alienated, at the same time . . . looking for love, acceptance." And he has come to realize, he says, voicing John Lewis's precise words, that everyone has "a spark of the divine."

Thoughts of the murderer-given parole after seventeen years despite his life sentence-no longer torment Nethercut, who has finally and totally forgiven the man. "Forgiveness is something you do for yourself," said Nethercut. "It releases you from a prison of your own making. You forgive the individual and move on. . . . Reconciliation is a step further. . . . That takes both sides."

Nethercut feels that he is a man transformed, and he is no longer depressed. "I feel more whole, more kind of at peace." Through his work, his faith, determination, and grace, he has turned a tragedy in his past into something about which he feels unequivocally positive.

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