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Mother shows color of bravery in forgiveness

Friday, September 01, 2000

One of the mothers said it best: "You put a sword through my heart, and I can't imagine how you could do such a thing."

For putting a sword through the hearts of two mothers, Nathan "Boo" Herring got what he deserved. The 19-year old Steubenville, Ohio, man was sentenced to two life terms without parole for his role in the murders of Franciscan University students Aaron Land and Brian Muha.

The day before he was sentenced, Herring admitted on the stand that being drunk, high and looped out of his mind on prescription drugs shouldn't exempt him from responsibility for the killings. His only dispute with the prosecution was whether he was the trigger man, a rap he successfully beat in court by fingering his partner in crime, Terrell Yarbrough. Still, he brutalized the men and aided in their murders on a lonely stretch of Route 22 in Robinson, Washington County.

Land and Muha's badly decomposed bodies were found under a thicket of wild roses on June 4, 1999, several days after each had been shot in the head at close range. The ineptitude of the killers contributed to their quick arrests. It wasn't long before they were implicating each other like a couple of mopes on "NYPD Blue."

In the wake of the murder investigation, most of Herring and Yarbrough's associates were busted for various drug offenses. The abduction and murder of the Franciscan University students on the eve of summer school classes had concentrated the minds of law enforcement in several states, making the Steubenville gang a little too hot for the streets.

Shortly after the murders, I heard from friends of Land and Muha who wanted to respond to a column I wrote about the murders. Given the letters I was beginning to receive from local cranks, I was convinced that the region's simmering racial tensions were about to be stoked.

A California buddy of one of the slain men recounted his struggle to contain his rage at black people in general and the suspects in particular. He admitted having let a few racist epithets fly in the days following the discovery of Land's body. He chalked it up to having lived for four years in Steubenville, where he and his friends were subject to harassment from black neighbors who resented their white skins and relative privilege.

After receiving several "confessions" of this sort in response to the column, my heart sank. If folks who said they believed in a God who doesn't make distinctions felt justified in harboring racial animus because of their grief, what could I say that would change their hearts?

Fast forward to today. The first of two scheduled murder trials has finally concluded in Steubenville. Yarbrough, the alleged trigger man, goes on trial later this month. Herring apologized to the families of Land and Muha during the sentencing phase. His awkward redemption song was interrupted by his own sobs and trembling on the witness stand. Perhaps it was the first time the newly convicted killer had taken responsibility for anything in his young life.

Still, I assumed calls for the death penalty from the families would be muted, a concession to an excruciating struggle between the demands of a life-affirming faith and outrage at the way their sons and brothers were taken from them.

I never expected eloquent speeches about forgiveness and redemption to fill the courtroom. From his own family, I expected sympathy, but not from the families of his victims.

At the heart of the courtroom's luminous drama was Rachel Muha, the mother of Brian. Her gracious speech will reverberate for years in that sad and divided community.

"If you hadn't done this, I would have my Brian and you would have your freedom," she said calmly. "But losing your freedom is not as bad as losing your soul." She then asked Herring to redeem the rest of his years on Earth before blessing him and assuring him she'd pray for him.

Herring had no idea a year ago that he'd ever be confronted by such a woman. Had he known such love in his life, he would've wrestled his partner to the ground. Taking a bullet would've been better than living under the weight of a heartbroken mother's prayers.

Rachel Muha's redemption song has stunned and inspired many people. What the petite woman did in the presence of the tall man who helped kill her son required a bravery beyond what it takes to squeeze the trigger of a gun. What good is hatred? Rachel Muha understands that, sometimes, the language of redemption is the only thing in the whole world that makes any sense.

Tony Norman's email: tnorman@post-gazette.com

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