Family puts anger to rest by forgiving killer

The Baltimore Sun

Long before he sat in a Baltimore courtroom to hear the 60-year prison sentence, before he hugged his family and walked out to face reporters, even before police had arrested his son's killer, Gerald Jones had made his decision: He would forgive.

In November 2005, Jones' 33-year-old son, Brian O'Neil Jones, was killed on a street in Canton. Brian Jones -- a husband, father of three, software engineer and volunteer high school basketball coach at Cardinal Gibbons -- was the victim of an apparently unprovoked shooting.

Amid the shock and mourning, Gerald Jones found peace. "It wasn't easy," he says. "It really wasn't easy because I would like for my son to be sitting here."

But, he adds, "The only way I can live my life each day without the idea of wanting to do something to this guy because he's done something to you, the only way I can do that is to forgive him."

Eventually, his wife, surviving son and daughter-in-law joined him.

That forgiveness has not wavered, even though police and prosecutors have been unable to explain why the shooting happened. Alvin Augustus Williams, the man sentenced last month to 60 years in prison in Brian Jones' death, continues to proclaim his innocence. Two witnesses, however, placed Williams in the area holding a rifle the night of the killing.

For Jones and his family, it is irrelevant whether Williams ever acknowledges the killing. Their spirit of forgiveness is rooted in Christianity and decades of service at Baltimore's Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. But forgiveness did not come instantly; each family member embraced it at different times.

Brian Jones' wife, Kenya, 33, says it took her longer to forgive Williams, and she still struggles occasionally.

Brian's younger brother, Brandon, sought counseling, wrestling with the additional burden of having made plans to be with his sibling that night.

Martina Jones, Brian's mother, was inconsolable for days after his death but made her peace through counseling and a bereavement class.

Gerald Jones, meanwhile, reflected on an equally devastating loss to help him cope with Brian's death. Gerald and Martina's first child, Brady, died at 28 of a massive stroke in 1996.

"I keep telling my wife, we must be the Job family," says Gerald, referring to the biblical figure who was tormented by God in a test of faith. "The good Lord must say, 'These are my servants down here, and I'll do this to see if they still trust and believe in me.'"

Part of trusting in God, he says, comes through forgiveness.

Deborah Mitnick, a psychotherapist and crisis interventionist specializing in grief and trauma work in Baltimore, says people can heal by gaining insight. One way to work toward insight is through forgiveness.

"Forgiveness is a gift received by the victim," Mitnick says. "It's freedom from some of the negative energy."

Brian Williams' wife, brother, mother and father have all given themselves this gift.

They deal with his death by celebrating his life. They would not be able to do so, the family says, without a collective merciful heart.

'He must be forgiven'

Forgiving is hardest for Kenya Jones, and she acknowledges as much. The couple's next anniversary would have been their 10th, and it bothers her that their future was ripped away.

"It's almost like being an alcoholic," Kenya says. "Even though it may have been 20 years without a drink, it's still hard. I'm at the point now where I have forgiven [Williams], but I'll have a rough day with the family, miss my husband and might have a setback."

They had a good life -- three young children, a house in Millersville and stable jobs -- before Kenya's world was turned upside down by a late-night phone call from police.

They met at Tennessee State University in 1991. Brian had joined the basketball team in his sophomore year as a walk-on, and she made the cheerleading squad as a freshman.

Brian was seeing someone else at the time, but when that relationship fizzled, "I just conveniently moved in," she says. "I could be with him for hours and hours, and days and days."

In the next breath, Kenya recalls sitting in the courtroom during the trial in January, where she looked at Williams with amazement.

"As a human, yeah, you want to have a feeling of hate, disgust," Kenya says. "You look at that person and think, 'They don't even have a clue as to what impact they've caused in so many lives.' Not only Brian's children, but the number of players he touched, his whole high school, his college buddies, the people he worked with.

"Just looking at that person, he just didn't have any regard for life. It makes you wonder, but yet and still, he must be forgiven or we'd always be stuck -- mad, sad, depressed and dwelling on that our whole lives."

Moving on

The brothers were best friends.

Seven years might have separated them in age, but Brandon says people still mistook him and Brian for twins.

Brandon, 28, thinks back to their battles on the basketball court and remembers winning the last time the two played.

He was supposed to be there the night Brian was killed, but after a long day's work, a drive from his home in Upper Marlboro to the city seemed a bit much. He passed.

About 1:30 that morning, Williams jumped out of a car with a rifle in hand, court testimony revealed.

Brian and a friend were coming from a bar in Canton Square when they saw Williams. The friend ran one way; Brian ran the other. The friend testified that Williams yelled a curse word before opening fire. Brian was shot once. He staggered a couple of blocks to a grassy lot near a nursing home and died. His body was discovered hours later.

From time to time, Brandon thinks about whether things might have been different if he had been there, but he does not dwell on the hypothetical. Nor does he dwell on Williams.

"I have the power to make a choice," he says. "And I have to choose how I'm going to act, how I'm going to react and how I'm going to go forward. I was able to forgive and let go."

Brandon sought counseling after his brother's death. Those sessions helped him keep his perspective while listening to Williams protest his innocence to a judge during the sentencing.

"You've got to forgive somebody, whether they admit or not," Brandon says. "In order for me to move on -- whether he says he's sorry and feels sorry and tries to make it up to you, or whether he's nonchalant and doesn't care -- you have to forgive him."

A talk with God

Martina Jones, 54, also sought counseling. She took a bereavement class, which helped her sort out her feelings.

Most helpful, though, was a conversation she says she had with God.

"He says, 'Forgive the killer.' I was like, 'Are you talking to me? I'm asking you why my son was killed, and you're telling me to forgive the killer.' But you have to do what God tells you to do."

She says she will miss the little things. Sundays -- when Brian would come over and root for the Dallas Cowboys -- stand out.

Martina, with no allegiance to a professional football team before, now considers herself a Cowboys fan.

"I have had some long conversations with God, because spiritually, I was on top of the world. This was the hardest thing that I've ever had to do," she says.

A 'dreaded' phone call

Gerald Jones, 55, was in Virginia with his wife when the call came. They were headed out the door to a retirement party for a friend as the phone rang. Brandon was on the other end.

"You get phone calls all the time, but I've got two phone calls in my life that I've just dreaded," Gerald says. "Both calls were when my sons were gone."

Gerald says he and his wife raised good kids. They taught their children who was boss early, instilling discipline with a long list of rules.

The tough love worked. All three earned college degrees. None had trouble with the law.

Williams, however, has a lengthy criminal history. Gerald knows this, and he says it is one of the reasons why Williams' soul needs mercy.

"I don't know what that kid's life was like. The only thing that I can hope and pray is that before he leaves this world, he asks the Lord for forgiveness," he says. "We've asked the Lord to forgive him because whatever the case may be, there is nothing we can do to bring our son back. So we just have to deal with that."

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