True Stories

You Killed My Son…And I Forgive You

For 10 years now StoryCorps has captured real Americans talking about love and loss, pain and triumph. In honor of their anniversary, we publish this moving conversation between a woman and the man who killed her only son.

MARY JOHNSON, 58, talks with OSHEA ISRAEL, 34

In 1993, Oshea Israel, 16, got into an argument with Laramiun Byrd, 20, at a party, and he shot and killed him. Laramiun was Mary Johnson’s only son.

Mary Johnson: You took my son Laramiun’s life, and I needed to know why. The first time I asked you to meet with me, you said absolutely not. So I waited nine months and asked you again—and you said yes. You and I finally met in March 2005 at Stillwater Prison. I wanted to know if you were in the same minds-set of what I remembered from court when you were sixteen. But you were not that sixteen-year-old boy anymore. You were a man. You entered, and we shook hands. I just told you that I didn’t know you; you didn’t know me. You didn’t know my son; my son didn’t know you. But we needed to get to know one another. And that’s mainly what we did for two hours. We talked.

Oshea Israel: I found out that your son’s and my life paralleled, and we had been through some of the same things, and somehow we got crossed. And I took his life—without even knowing him. But when I met you, he became human to me.

When it was time to go, you broke down and started shedding tears. And then you just started going down, and the initial thing I tried to do was just hold you up in my arms. I’m thinking, I can’t let her hit the ground. So I just hugged you like I would my own mother.

Mary: After you left, I said, “I just hugged the man who murdered my son.” And that’s when I began to feel this movement in my feet. It moved up my legs and it just moved up my body. When I felt it leave me, I instantly knew that all that anger and hatred and animosity I had in my heart for you for twelve years was over. I had totally forgiven you.

Oshea: Being incarcerated for so long, you tend to get detached from real love from people. Sometimes I still don’t know how to take receiving forgiveness from you. How do you forgive someone who has taken your only child’s life? To know that I robbed you of that, and for you to forgive me… you can’t really put it into words.

I served seventeen years of my twenty-five-year sentence, and since I got out, I see you almost every day. Although I can never replace what was taken from you—I can never fill that void—I can do the best that I can to be right there for you. I didn’t want you to wonder what this guy was doing since he got out of prison. And now, you can actually see what I’m doing—you live right next door.

Mary: It’s amazing. We have our conversations on our porch, and we share our stories—

Oshea: They go from “Hey, I found a job opportunity for you” to “Boy, how come you ain’t called over here to check on me in a couple days? You ain’t even asked me if I need my garbage to go out!” [Laughter.] I find those things funny, and I appreciate it all. I admire you for your being brave enough to offer forgiveness, and for being brave enough to take that step. It motivates me to make sure that I stay on the right path.

Mary: I know it is not an easy thing to talk about, us sitting here, looking at each other right now. So I admire that you can do this.

Oshea: Regardless of how much you see me stumble out here, you still believe in me. You still have the confidence that I’m going to do the right thing, and you still tell me to keep moving forward, no matter what.

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Mary: You know, I didn’t see Laramiun graduate, but you’re going to college, and I’ll be able to see you graduate. I didn’t see him get married. But hopefully, one day I’ll be able to experience that with you. Our relationship is beyond belief.

Oshea: I agree. I love you, lady.

Mary: I love you too, son.

Recorded in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on April 18, 2011.