In a Canton, Ohio, courtroom Feb. 28, Bobby Cutts Jr., a former police officer, listened to statements of grief and anger from the family of 26-year-old Jesse Davis, the woman he had been convicted of murdering.
Then, in what became an extraordinary moment that some other family members had advised against, Davis' mother, Patty Porter, stood to make her statement -- a statement she had planned as an act of forgiveness.
"The person before me had told me not to look at him," Porter said. "But I wanted him to look at me. I wanted him to see me."
What hung in the balance was whether Porter could follow through with the forgiveness she believed was necessary to continue with her life. How she faced that decision is a story with an age-old theme ingrained in many religions in which forgiveness is a key tenet, but which seldom reaches the magnitude of what she was asking of herself -- whether to forgive the man who had murdered her daughter.
'Something Really Horrible Had Happened'
Only a few months before, in June 2007, Porter had been searching desperately for her daughter. Davis was pregnant and missing from her home in northeastern Ohio.
Cutts was one of the people who joined the search. He had fathered a son with Davis; the boy, named Blake, then 2½, had been found alone in the house.
"He just kept repeating that his mommy broke the table and his mommy was crying and his mommy was in the rug," Porter said. "You could tell immediately something really horrible had happened there."
At first, Cutts denied any knowledge of the disappearance. After hundreds of people had helped in the search, Cutts changed his story and finally led police to a remote area of a nearby park where he had disposed of the body after wrapping it in a comforter -- what his son Blake had mistaken for a rug.
By then, the body was too decomposed to determine an exact cause of death. Cutts claimed the death had been an accident that occurred during an argument when he said he elbowed Davis in her throat.
Porter had taken custody of Blake, who continued to spontaneously refer to the incident and to witnessing his mother fall so violently that she broke a table.
During the trial, prosecutors said they believed Cutts had committed the murder to avoid paying support for the unborn child that Davis had carried nearly to full term, a girl she intended to name Chloe. Cutts was also convicted of the child's death.
Others who were close to Davis believed the circumstances were too brutal for Porter to even consider forgiving Cutts.
"For most people, forgiveness is at the end of the grief process," said Fred Luskin, the director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects, one of the few research endeavors of its kind in the world. "And then after it has run somewhat of a natural course, I believe that what we are intended to do is let it go and come back to life. When you can't forgive or let go, and you're burdened by your past or your woundedness, you lose what's called efficacy, which is, 'I can handle my life.'"
Even under the worst of circumstances, Luskin believes forgiveness can and should be taught. He and his colleagues have worked in Northern Ireland and currently are working in Sierra Leone, where terrible atrocities were committed during that country's civil wars.
He also has written a book, "Forgive for Love," about relationships. He said that without forgiveness, damage is often passed on, sometimes from generation to generation.
"And that's that fulcrum point where this whole world kind of totters," he said. "You did it to me. Therefore, I can do it back."
Anthropologist Helen Fisher said forgiveness has been essential "from a Darwinian evolutionary perspective."
For instance, it is a part of chimpanzee culture.
"Males have battles every day for status and there's always a winner and a loser," Fisher said. "Forty percent of the time within the next half hour, they reconcile. They forgive each other. They will put their hand out to each other in a gesture of reconciliation. They'll come over and kiss each other on the lips. They'll pat each other on the back."
Forgive, Don't Forget
Luskin conceded that people who are too quick to forgive risk becoming doormats.
"Forgiveness is not the same as getting a lobotomy," he said. "You still have to think and take care of things and act with intelligence and discrimination."
Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, in a famous quote, put it this way: "The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naïve forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget."
There also was a significant difference between Porter and those who could not forgive Cutts. Porter had taken responsibility for Blake, the son that Cutts had fathered with her daughter.
"I serve an amazing God, Bobby, a God that forgives," Porter said at Cutts' sentencing hearing. "And I made up my mind that I would forgive you. … I would have never been able to raise Blake and hate you."
She asked the judge to consider a sentence that would someday allow Cutts to leave prison and hold his son.
"And I hope and pray that I'm able to raise [Blake] to forgive you," she told Cutts. "He knows what you did."
There was a sign of emotion from the 30-year-old Cutts -- a tear -- shortly after Porter finished her statement. He showed no emotion when he was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole only after he has served 57 years.
"I didn't think I could raise my grandson to be any kind of a man if I was full of hate and anger," Porter said later. "My daughter would have never wanted that either."
"My forgiving [Cutts] didn't change anything as far as what was going to happen to him," she added. "But it changed me. It's almost like it gave me the freedom to mourn my daughter's loss and not feel that awful rage that happens to you when you choose not to forgive people. I was not going to let this destroy me as well."
Visit http://www.blakesbrighttomorrow.com/ to find out about a college fund for Davis' son, Blake.