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Artwork by Sharon Adarlo

(Republished with new art created by Sharon Adarlo, Prison Journalism Project’s artist-in-residence)

The judge banged the gavel twice, affirming a hard and fast end. Justice was served. I was now a convicted murderer.

I was escorted out of the courtroom in handcuffs, facing a sentence of 50 years to life.

After having said their piece, the victim’s family soberly exited. All was remedied. There was closure. Life could go on.

Or could it?

Back in December of 1992, I committed a horrific crime. In a robbery gone wrong, I took the life of a jewelry store owner who had every reason to live. A model citizen. A pillar of the community. It was a heartrending loss for all.

After the trial, I was alone to deal with my thoughts, trying to wrap my head around a death-by-incarceration life sentence. I’m sure the family had questions, too. There still remained a yearning for answers on both sides.

Decades passed. Finally, after 28 years, the reckoning and healing process began.

Circumstances allowed me the opportunity to be considered for early parole. The CUNY School of Law was willing to represent me in an application for executive clemency. My entire life would be examined and reevaluated. The victim’s family would be contacted in the process. Scarred wounds would be reopened. Reckoning and closure could finally be approached.

Professional intermediators made contact with the family. The victim’s daughter and nephew had mixed reactions in deciding for or against my release. But they wanted a meeting. A scheduled visit with me — one that was long overdue.

When I learned of the family‘s request, I dropped the phone and began to sob uncontrollably. My law team felt apprehensive about a face-to-face meeting. They wanted a fail-safe; they wanted to be present. But the family was adamant in their position to come alone. They had been ready and waiting for this opportunity for well over a decade.

Ultimately, the decision was mine. This caused a shift in my priorities. I began to focus on reckoning and accountability. This was not about my prospect for early release, but about taking responsibility for my past actions. Doing sorry, not just saying sorry.

Redemption is not easily earned.

Eight years ago, I decided to change my life. It started with education; I earned two college degrees with a 4.0 GPA and was class valedictorian. I wrote algebra courses and ethnographic case studies. I came to terms with my addiction and focused on community-based projects. And now, I had the opportunity to reconcile with my most grating demon — unresolved reckoning.

I realized the most intense and emotionally charged conversation of my life was scheduled in just a few weeks.

I became anxious. Conflicted. I lost both weight and sleep. Eventually, I found peace. Decades of remorse and a willingness to answer for my transgressions empowered me. The day had finally arrived, and I was prepared.

On that afternoon in November, I entered the visiting room. We looked at each other silently as we formed first impressions. I recognized the victim’s daughter. I read a flash of shock. Then anger registered in her eyes. The nephew’s expression burned with rage. Emotions were running high.

I thought to myself, “I can handle this…I am here for them.”

As I sat down, I clasped my hands together and humbly said, “Thank you for coming.” The situation was awkward, and I hung my head in shame. I offered to revisit that fateful day. Still, there was hesitancy on their part.

Even so, I began.

I started with the week before, the lowest point in my life. I was on parole, homeless, jobless and broke. Desperation set me on a course of self-destruction. I entered a jewelry store impulsively. An altercation ensued. The end result: felony murder during the commission of a crime. I related this story in its entirety. No exemptions. No excuses. Just the truth. The ice was broken, so that the healing process might begin.

Over the next two hours, many aspects of our lives were revealed. Sensitive questions answered, and tears shed on both sides of the table. We experienced catharsis, whether spoken outwardly or felt inwardly. l underwent a flood of remorse as l openly shed tears without shame. An overwhelming sense of relief overcame me after so many years.

Then they related a story that shocked and saddened me. After the trial, the victim’s daughter had nightmares for years. In them, I was the monster that I used to be, something else to be accountable for.

All our minds were spinning at the visit’s end. We were left with so much to process. I yearned for more completeness as the connection ended. I hoped that all their questions were answered.

That night, I prayed for that conclusion. But I asked myself many questions.

Shouldn’t society have a quicker way for the healing process to begin? After all, the family wanted answers more than a decade ago.

The mere pounding of a judge’s gavel just wasn’t enough.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Robert E. Ehrenberg is a writer who was released from Sullivan Correctional Facility in New York, where he served a sentence of 50 years to life. He is a college graduate and holds an associate degree in humanities and a bachelor’s degree in social science.