This past Wednesday, a 45-year-old Jewish man was put to death in Florida by lethal injection.
His name was Martin Grossman, his crime was murder.
The facts are tragic and painful. A 19-year-old young man from a troubled background, father dead, mother sick, himself on drugs and medications, was out on parole for a burglary offence.
While on parole he and a friend were apprehended by a wildlife officer on patrol, a young woman by the name of Margaret Parks. She found a handgun in their possession and confiscated it.
To avoid going back to prison for possession of a firearm, Martin committed a heinous crime: He ripped a gun from the officer's hand and shot her dead. A young, innocent life destroyed.
Grossman sat on Death Row for more than two decades, waiting for the sand in the timer to run out... This past Wednesday it did.
But the Martin Grossman whose life was taken, watched by a silent audience of Parks' family members, members of the press and a distraught rabbi, was not the same Martin Grossman who brutally murdered an innocent young woman all those years ago.
The young man who committed homicide on that terrible day was possessed by demons—demons with names like PCP, cocaine and crystal meth. Aged 19 and borderline retarded, Grossman was a poorly educated, highly medicated, drug dependent young delinquent. His father had been ill and needed constant care, eventually passing away when Martin was 14. His mother was ill, delusional and addicted to drugs herself—not exactly the building blocks for a stable household and childhood. This led to a downward spiral of bad behavior and its consequences, culminating in the shooting of a young woman whilst under the influence of a cocktail of drugs and medications.
What, if anything, can be learned from this tragic story?
In the past few weeks, close to 35,000 people who did not know Martin Grossman signed a petition for clemency. They pleaded with the Florida Governor to allow him to spend the rest of his days behind bars—but alive.
Why did they do this for someone they probably never heard of and definitely never knew?
The reason, I believe – apart from a healthy skepticism of the justice system – is an email released by the Aleph Institute, an international organization that provides assistance to Jewish prisoners and members of the military. Part of the email reads as follows:
Rabbi Menachem Katz with the Aleph Institute has been Martin's spiritual advisor for the past 15 years and testifies that Martin has truly turned his life around and struggles daily for repentance. "He is now a solid, humble human being, far from the disturbed youth who shot Margaret Parks over 25 years ago," says Rabbi Katz. Testimonies from fellow inmates and guards attest to the tremendous remorse Martin continues to express.
As Jews we have a strong belief in the power of teshuvah—the ability to return to our inner essence, a soul which is a part of G‑d, and to atone for even the most terrible sin. And so, whilst recognizing that justice must be served, and that a heinous crime had been committed, many appealed for the life of this once-troubled youth to be spared, allowing him to live the rest of his life behind bars, repenting for his past and following a path of return.
Of course there are many who naturally disagree, and the Florida Governor was one of them. But whether we can say for sure if he repented fully or not, his final words on this planet were telling. Before the lethal injections took place, Martin's words were, "I completely regret everything that I did on that night, both that which I remember and that which I do not."
He then asked to say a prayer, which the officer okayed.
His final words, recited with intense concentration and in a loud voice, in front of a room of people waiting to see him die, were Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad ("Hear O Israel, G‑d is our G‑d, G‑d is One")—followed by the words "Ahavat Yisrael" ("Love for your fellow Jew").
A sad and tragic story, but surely one for profound contemplation. Our Sages tell us "Yesh koneh olamo b'sha'ah achat"—There are some who [even after having lived a life of sin] attain eternal life in a brief moment of absolute teshuvah.
Maybe Martin Grossman was one such individual.