Sister Muriel Curran faced the man who shoved her to the ground and ripped away her purse three years ago. She quoted Scripture. She thanked him for the guilty plea that spared her a trial. And she asked a Baltimore County judge not to send him to prison.
"There is possibility and hope - I believe in it, it's what I'm about - in rehabilitation and a future," the 78-year-old nun said yesterday, explaining that she has difficulty believing in a penal system that sometimes leaves criminals worse off than before they went to prison. "I've taught too many boys in my life not to believe that growth and change can take place."
Police officers waiting for other cases listened in astonishment.
The defendant's aunt and grandmother wept openly. Even strangers sitting in the courtroom sat spellbound and dabbed at their eyes. The veteran prosecutor handling the case fought back tears and later characterized the scene as "the single most profound thing I have ever heard in a courtroom."
And the convicted robber, Charles R. Dodson, 22, hung his bald and tattooed head as he tearfully offered apologies and begged for the forgiveness that the nun had already granted.
Asked after the hearing what had inspired her unusual approach to the man who left her with broken bones and deep bruises, unable to fully raise one arm and incapable of living on her own any longer, Sister Curran answered simply.
"The Gospel," she said. "You hear that cliche - 'What would Jesus do?' - but if you live it, you've got to believe it."
The prosecutor and even the defendant's lawyer had asked for a sentence of three to eight years in the robbery.
On April 27, 2005, Sister Curran and another nun were returning to their apartment on Nunley Drive in Parkville about 10:30 p.m. As they searched for a parking spot, they saw two young men talking on the sidewalk near their building, according to charging documents.
Minutes later, after one of the men had asked for directions and as Sister Curran held the door for her friend, who was carrying luggage, someone shoved the nun and snatched her purse. The robbers made off with the handbag, which contained $70 in a birthday card.
Sister Curran broke five ribs and tore her rotator cuff in the fall. Her face and arm were badly bruised. A gash above her eye required stitches.
"My right arm is permanently disabled. The doctors can do nothing," Sister Curran said yesterday, explaining that the injuries have effectively made the defendant a permanent part of her life.
The injuries forced Sister Curran - the daughter of a Boston-area police officer - to move from her apartment to the School Sisters of Notre Dame's Motherhouse and to cut back on her ministry work, said Leo Ryan Jr., the Baltimore County deputy state's attorney who prosecuted the case. Although Sister Curran spent part of her career teaching, she devoted a great deal of time to a retreat ministry, the prosecutor said.
More than a year after the attack, a suspect in an unrelated case told police that he knew about a robbery that had netted a birthday card with cash in it. Further investigation led police to Dodson, who had moved to West Virginia.
There, in the city of Fairmont, "he has done a great deal of growing," defense attorney James Dills told the judge.
Dodson, who had been a heavy marijuana user and convicted thief as a teenager in Baltimore County, earned a GED, got a full-time job as a server at Pizza Hut and began studying to become certified in glass customization, Dills said. He moved in with his girlfriend and had a baby girl.
Still, the robbery of "the old lady," as he described it to friends, stayed with the defendant.
"During my positive voyage, I always had that night in my head in the back - lurking, hiding, waiting for the truth to reveal itself one day," Dodson said in court.
It caught up with him in September, when he was locked up and charged with robbery, second-degree assault and theft.
Yesterday, on the morning he was scheduled to go to trial, Dodson pleaded guilty to one count of robbery. The decision spared the nun the trip to the witness stand that she said she would have dreaded.
Reading from a card, Sister Curran quoted a letter in the Bible from the Prophet Jeremiah: "For I know well the plans I have in mind for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare, not for woe! plans to give you a future full of hope."
Turning to face Dodson, she said, "That is my hope for you, Charles. I would like to give that to you."
She reached out to hand him the card. She then extended her arm again. And although the sheriff's deputies assigned to the county's courtrooms usually prevent anyone other than defense attorneys from touching a defendant, no one interfered as the snowy-haired nun in the navy suit and white blouse shook the hand of the tattooed man in a dirty white T-shirt who had robbed her three years earlier.
In announcing his sentence, Baltimore County Circuit Judge H. Patrick Stringer Jr. said he believed Dodson's account that he did not intend to hurt the nun, "but when you push down a 75-year-old woman, something bad is going to happen."
Stringer sentenced Dodson to 10 years in prison, suspending all but 4 1/2 years and ordering him to serve three years of probation upon his release.
The judge explained that he, like Sister Curran, believes in rehabilitation. But he said he also believes in punishment.