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‘Dead Man Walking’ victim shares power of forgiveness

ST. LOUIS (BP)–“Forgiveness is a beautiful word until you are the one who has to forgive,” said Debbie Morris, who was brutally raped as a 16-year-old by Robert Lee Willie, the prisoner whose life was chronicled in the 1995 movie, “Dead Man Walking,” starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.

Sharing her testimony during the June 9-10 Woman’s Missionary Union annual meeting in St. Louis, Morris said, “Forgiveness is a difficult thing to do sometimes. It takes courage. It takes faith.”

Morris, now living in Mandeville, La., with her family, was kidnapped along with her teenage boyfriend, Mark, taken to a remote area in south Alabama and viciously attacked.

Morris recounted her thoughts when she was raped for the first time, while her boyfriend was confined in the trunk of their car.

“I would survive, no matter what I have to endure,” she remembered thinking, acknowledging her resolve had to have come from the God she had accepted two years before.

She also remembered wanting to remember every single detail, the look of her captors’ faces, so that she could later help convict her attackers. “I was so filled with hate and with the need for revenge,” she said.

While she was repeatedly raped over a 24-hour period, her boyfriend was taken into the woods, hung on a tree, shot in the head and stabbed in the side, his neck slashed, and left for dead. Miraculously, he survived and is married to another woman.

Morris recalled thinking in the midst of the attacks, “Where is God right now — the God that I love? Does he even exist?”

That answer would come much later for Morris when Willie was seated in the courtroom answering for his actions.

“Why did you let her go?” Willie had been asked. “I know it was a stupid thing to do,” he responded. “But there was something different about her. When I looked into her eyes, I saw love.”

Morris could not believe her ears. Love? Disgust, contempt, hatred, but surely not love, she said.

“When I thought that I had been abandoned by God, he really was there,” she said. What Willie saw was not her love, she said, but the love of Jesus Christ in her, who was looking back at him.

After long, grueling trials, Vaccaro and Willie were sentenced for numerous crimes. Willie was given the death penalty, which at that time in Louisiana meant the electric chair.

“Even with the revenge that I felt,” Morris said, “[the punishment] was a heavy burden for a 16-year-old to carry into life.”

Though justice had been served, and it was time to go on with life as it was before, Morris felt bitter and scared and her whole world was turned upside down. “It didn’t matter to me anymore whether I was a cheerleader or homecoming queen,” she said. “It didn’t matter if I even passed.”

Fearing the state psychiatric hospital in a nearby city, Morris kept her depressed feelings to herself, which eventually led her to drop out of high school, where she was once an honor student.

She turned to alcohol, like her parents, even after promising earlier in her life that she never would.

When the time came for justice to be carried out through Willie’s execution, Morris realized that all she wanted was peace. “I had held on to this hope that once justice was served, I would be healed” and experience peace and resolution.

“There’s no justice in this world,” she recounted. “There is no justice in our justice system. We answer to a much higher justice system.”

Morris realized that the people, alcohol and other things she had tried did not give her that peace. Instead, she asked God to reveal himself to her again, to help her forgive the man who had done these terrible things to her.

The morning after Willie was executed, Morris admitted that she was not healed immediately, but she did feel a burden lifted from her. Knowing that forgiveness was a process, Morris set about to learn about complete forgiveness.

“I learned that I had turned my back on the Lord, and I needed his forgiveness,” she shared.

“Forgiveness is something I did for me,” she said. “Robert Lee Willie did not benefit that night because of my forgiveness. He died in the electric chair that night. But I got new life when I forgave.”

Morris recounted how later, one night when she was nursing her newborn son, she began to think of Willie’s mother, who had aided and abetted her son in escaping from prison on a prior conviction, and who had lied about her on the witness stand.

“I began to realize that there was a time when Robert’s mother held her newborn son in her arms, dreaming of the life ahead for him,” Morris said. “For a moment, I felt a bond with her. For the first time, I understood a love so strong that we might do something wrong to protect that love.

“God softened my heart toward this mother,” Morris told the WMU audience.

Later, when Morris saw the movie “Dead Man Walking,” she saw the scene when Willie’s mother visited her son for the last time before his execution. She had to say goodbye without wrapping her arms around her child one more time.

“Our hearts must go out to these women,” Morris said tearfully.

She related how she later had a burning desire to go to her rapist’s mother, to ask her for forgiveness for holding a grudge against her, but found that she had died from cancer.

“I realized, again, that I was the one who needed forgiveness,” she said, noting that forgiveness has different outcomes. “God’s may not always include restoration, but forgiveness is for everyone.”

Though she had understood that intellectually, it wasn’t until she went on TV to share her story that she realized there was still a part of her that felt Willie did not deserve to be in heaven.

She has since understood that God’s love is boundless and his mercies are unfailing for all people. Though there was no evidence that Willie ever repented or accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior, Morris said that if he did accept Jesus in the final minutes or seconds of his life, she will welcome him in heaven, where she knows she will be.

“As a Christian, I realized that I was required to forgive,” she said, before challenging her audience to examine their own lives.

“Look at the co-worker who received the promotion you deserved or your husband deserved. Look at the committee member who always thinks their ideas are the best. Even in our churches, look at the catty gossiping that takes place. Think about the people who have children on the same sports teams as your children. Think about your husband’s ex-girlfriends or new wife.

“God is very clear about how we should treat these difficult people,” she said, drawing from Matthew 5. “We are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

“It takes courage to love those who seem unlovable. It takes faith to forgive in our humanness those we declare as unforgivable.

“Will you accept the forgiveness of someone else or forgive someone today?”

    About the Author

  • Shannon Baker

    Shannon Baker is director of communications for the Baptist Resource Network of Pennsylvania/South Jersey and editor of the Network’s weekly newsletter, BRN United.

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