The Ultimate Test

Choosing Mercyby By Antoinette BoscoOrbis. 239p $17.

Toward the end of a summer vacation in 1993 at her Connecticut home, Antoinette Bosco received the kind of telephone call that—to use her own words—"leaves a family with lives permanently shattered." The call came from a sheriff in Montana, who informed her that her son and daughter-in-law, John and Nancy Bosco, had been found shot to death in their home. With two other sons, Antoinette Bosco flew to Montana and there, she tells us, "the first thing my sons and I did was go up the stairs to the bedroom where our loved one had been murdered." The room was still marked with their blood. Choosing Mercy is the first-person story of a mother who suddenly found herself struggling to cope with this double murder.

Despite the horror of that scene and her rage at the as-yet unknown killer, Ms. Bosco—an award-winning journalist and author of several other books—never once thought in terms of the death penalty for the murderer. She had been opposed to it since childhood, having grown up hearing of a relative who had died in the electric chair at Sing Sing in New York State. She had no use, moreover, for the argument that putting a murderer to death brings closure and peace to the survivors: "It is only a delusion to believe that one’s pain is ended by making someone else feel pain." For her, the challenge to forgive was the only option.


The killer—a most unlikely one considering his background—was eventually discovered to be the son of the people from whom John and Nancy Bosco had purchased their house. An 18-year-old student at a Quaker college in Oregon, his name was Joseph Shadow Clark. Among family and acquaintances, however, he was known as Shadow—a strangely appropriate name for a person who carried out his double homicide at night, while his victims slept. Having confessed, he received what was in effect a life sentence: 220 years with no possibility of parole until he reached the age of 60. Forgive him though she did, Ms Bosco nevertheless "cried and screamed at Shadow Clark before I was able to let him go." But she realized that not to do so would mean being "emotionally...bound to him in a destructive way" for the rest of her life.

She also became painfully aware that there were others besides her own family members whose lives had been shattered by the murder—namely, Shadow Clark’s parents. Seeing a photograph of his mother, Brenda, she realizes that if anything could be worse than being the mother of a victim, "it would be to be the mother of the one who had killed another." She therefore goes on to observe, "I knew that never...could I say I wanted to add to her pain by having her son die." Later in the book, in a chapter called "The Other Victims," Ms. Bosco pursues this theme of the anguish endured by the relatives of murderers. Her personal account thus widens out to include the stories of many others affected by homicide—relatives of those who killed, as well as the loved ones of the victims.

One of the most remarkable stories in the book concerns a Methodist minister in Hartford, Conn., the Rev. Walter Everett. His 24-year-old son had been killed in a confrontation with a man named Mike Carlucci, who was high on cocaine at the time of the killing. Initially, Rev. Everett was filled with bitterness, not least because of Carlucci’s relatively light sentence of 10 years. But in court on the day of sentencing, he was moved by Carlucci’s sincere expression of sorrow for what he had done. Later, he wrote to him in prison—both to tell him of the pain and grief he had caused, but also to thank him for the contrition he had expressed in court. He ended the letter by saying that he forgave him, and he immediately felt a lightening of his burden. "By offering forgiveness, I freed myself from that hurt," Bosco quotes him as saying. Three weeks later, to his surprise, a reply came from Carlucci, who was so struck by the forgiving spirit of Rev. Everett that he fell to his knees in his prison cell and prayed for his own forgiveness. He wrote back saying that Rev. Everett had given him the will to live.

The friendship grew and then the story took what the author rightly calls an amazing turn. Years later, after his release, Carlucci met a young woman and they decided to marry. They asked Rev. Everett to perform the marriage, and he did. Ms. Bosco herself came to know Mike Carlucci in 1999 when he was on a panel at Boston College in which she, Rev. Everett, and the mother of another murder victim took part. The focus of the panelists’ stories was on "how healing the trauma of murder could only occur by forgiving"—and Mike’s presence was an example of how "forgiveness bears good fruit."

Ms. Bosco expands the scope of her book to include a critique of various aspects of our deeply flawed criminal justice system: mentally ill prisoners who should be in mental institutions instead of behind bars, the surge in prison construction and the growth of for-profit prisons and the irrationality of our mandatory minimum drug laws. But the book’s primary focus remains the death penalty.

In the book’s postscript, Ms. Bosco speaks of the challenge that faces us. First, she says, "we have to stop the lie that has been built into our society: that killing is an acceptable way to handle those we consider to be the aggressors." In her writing and her appearances on panels around the country, she herself helps increase the momentum toward a moratorium on executions, with abolition as the eventual goal—the goal, indeed, of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, of which she is a member. Although a majority of Americans still support capital punishment, support has been waning in recent years. A Washington Post-ABC news poll early in 2001 found that when offered the option of life in prison without possibility of parole, almost half the respondents chose that over the death penalty. Many human rights advocates, however, would see life in prison with no hope of parole as itself a flawed penalty. They would agree that we still have a long way to go when it comes to dealing justly and humanely with those who take the lives of others.


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