As a Minneapolis man served 17 years for murder, his victim's mother learned new kind of love.
The two families were pitted against each other by the bitter pain of a gruesome murder. But they plan to meet on Christmas Eve to share what they call a miracle of reconciliation.
Forgiveness has replaced a burning desire for retribution. Love and respect have replaced hate.
Oshea Israel, 34, who shot and killed a 20-year-old man at a north Minneapolis party in 1993, will start the holiday breaking bread with the slain man's mother, Mary Johnson.
Joining them will be Israel's mother, Carolyn Green, who first met Mary 17 years ago, in a Hennepin County courtroom, at Israel's trial. Back then, Johnson said, she got into an angry argument with Green and had to be restrained from striking her.
Israel now regards both women as his mothers.
The extraordinary dinner will take place at St. Jane House, a neighborhood retreat center in the 1400 block of Emerson Avenue N. Joining them will be the mothers of six other murder victims. The mothers are in a group Johnson started. It is dedicated to ending violence through healing and reconciliation between families of victims and their convicted killers.
The table was already set for Friday's dinner on Wednesday afternoon at St. Jane House, as three of the unlikely collaborators gathered in the small living room to describe how they came together. Their remarks were as emotional and unpolished as they were genuine.
Israel, who legally changed his name in prison as part of an effort to "make a new beginning," was born Marlon Green. He was 16 when he went to that party on Feb. 12, 1993, with several friends. There he got into a heated argument with Laramuin Byrd, 20, whom he'd never met. "I was intoxicated," said Israel. "Neither one of us would back down."
Byrd appeared to reach for something, and Israel pulled out a gun and fired, he recalled. According to the criminal complaint, he shot Byrd three times in the upper body, then shot him again in the head after Byrd fell to the floor. Israel was convicted of second-degree murder and sent to prison for 25 1/2 years.
'Wanted him caged'
That wasn't long enough for Byrd's mother. "I was full of hatred," Mary Johnson recalls. "I saw him as an animal. I wanted him caged. I wanted him to be locked up for the rest of his life. That was justice for me."
But the hatred was consuming her, Johnson said. Support groups didn't help, so she founded an organization called From Death to Life and hosted healing groups for parents of victims and convicted killers.
She said she was inspired by a poem, "Two Mothers," which describes two angels who meet and find they were both grieving mothers. One was the mother of Jesus, the other of Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed him.
"I had begun to realize everybody was hurting," Johnson said. She asked authorities if she could meet with Israel in Stillwater prison. Israel said he was reluctant to meet with her at first but ultimately decided she needed closure. The two sat down together for the first time in a prison conference room.
Johnson expressed forgiveness. Then, at the end of the meeting, they embraced, and she collapsed in his arms. "I told her, 'You will be the one to help me cry,'" Israel said.
They met more times and eventually made joint appearances before inmates, many of whom wept at the sight.
This past August, Johnson met with Israel's mother for the first time since the trial. Green had come from where she lives in Illinois to Minneapolis for Israel's post-prison homecoming party, which Johnson organized.
There, the two mothers reconciled, as well. "We became sisters in Christ," said Green, "and we share a son." While Johnson permanently lost an only son, Green said she lost one for 17 years. "To see him out and home is wonderful," Green said.
Johnson encourages other parents of victims and their killers to join her group, which includes one father. The group also sponsors talks by her and Israel at churches and prisons.
'Possible to forgive'
"We want to see the violence stop," said Brian Mogren, who operates St. Jane House with the Visitation Sisters, six nuns who live nearby. "And for people who have gone through homicide, it is possible to forgive and move on, and for mothers to come together and heal together."
"This time of the year is the hardest," says healing group member Angel Cradle, whose son, Duane Tyson, 34, was murdered in Seattle three years ago. "We know what grief is. We are all trying to heal together."
Out of prison since June, Israel has yet to find a job. But he regards his healing and reconciliation efforts as part of his life's work -- encouraging youths to make good choices and adults to set better examples.
"In my early years, I put out bad energy," he said. "And now I'm trying to create a positive energy, to bring about change. The community needs it; the world needs it."
Green is proud of how her son has evolved, and grateful for the newly forged relationships they will celebrate on Christmas Eve. "From a tragedy, comes a miracle," she said.
Randy Furst • 612-673-7382