This is the third in a three-part series by drunk driving victim Erin Rollins:
I looked the defendant dead in the eyes and read the closing portion of my victim impact statement. “Your behavior and seeming lack of remorse has been the hardest for me to work through. But I want you to know that I forgive you even though I don’t think you deserve it. Because, then again, Jesus forgave me and I didn’t deserve it.”
I stepped off of the stand feeling empowered, yet emotionally exhausted at the same time. I slowly made my way back to my seat.
I braced for the defendant to decline to say anything. Weeks leading up to the final court date, I had prepared myself that even if she didn’t acknowledge what she had done, my pain remained valid.
I knew I needed to forgive completely regardless of the outcome. Through my healing journey, I had believed a lie that told me that I needed her to feel remorse to validate my experience. And believing this challenged my ability to move forward.
Holding onto resentful feelings over the offender’s lack of remorse threatened the joy I had in God’s answer to my specific prayers, and the hope I had in Him to use something terrible for good. Focusing on what the offender wasn’t doing distracted me from being at peace with God and myself, and trusting that my pain had a very important purpose.
Coincidently only a week prior, the minister of my church gave a sermon on forgiveness. I learned that wholehearted forgiveness means letting go of resentful feelings towards someone, whether they deserve it or not. It does not mean forgetting what happened, or excusing the defendant’s actions. It meant freeing myself from the bitterness that tried to assimilate control over the defendant, her choices and the situation. It also meant giving myself permission to move on with life, to fully love my husband-to-be, and to extend myself the grace to accept the newfound changes to my body. By forgiving the offender completely, I also gave myself room to mourn my losses, but not stay there.
I was finally able to let go of the last piece that I had been holding onto for those years. Even if she didn’t apologize, I had released her, and myself, from feelings of resentment for her lack of remorse.
Then the impossible happened. The defendant got up and turned to look at me. She began to weep, and with what seemed to be an unpremeditated statement, she said, “I am not going to stand here and make excuses for what I did. All I can say is that I messed up and that I am so sorry, Erin, for you and all those who have come to support you.”
Through tears, she continued. “You are right Erin, I can live my life once I serve my sentence, but you will never have your life back, and for that I am so sorry.”
The judge told her to go with the officer. Unafraid and feeling compelled, I jumped up, and walked as quickly as possible through the glass door into the courtroom.
“Wait,” I exclaimed. “Jeanne, can I hug her?”
The state’s attorney replied. “You’ll have to ask her.”
The defendant turned towards me. I approached her.
“Can I hug you,” I asked vulnerably.
“Yes,” she replied. We embraced.
The courtroom lost it. My mom and her mom sobbed loudly and When I walked back through the courtroom to the benches, I noticed that my mother had rushed over to her mother and they were embracing. My family and I then hugged every other member of her family. Everyone who had come with her all said they were sorry. Her lawyer walked up to me, hugged me with tears in his eyes and apologized. Dennis later told me that her lawyer had shaken his hand, and told Dennis that “he had been wrong.”
According to my sister and everyone in the audience, there wasn’t a dry eye in the courtroom, including the officers and another person waiting for her case to be called. The judge quickly exited the stand after seeing us embrace, and with a crack in his voice, asked for a recess.
In that moment, I was freed in so many ways. Freed because I had said what I had intended to say, and was able to share the story that for two years I had kept pent up inside.
But when I look back now, I have no regrets. Did I call this tragedy on myself because I gave God permission to do what he thought fit, and glorify himself? No. But I did get what I asked for.
Forgiveness is a gift. I not only gave the offender the best gift before prison, I received many in return—the ability to enter marriage freed from the bondage of bitterness, and the freedom to extend myself the grace to accept what was lost and move on with life.
My physical demonstration of forgiveness turned out to be the most healing and powerful moment of my life. I demonstrated God’s love to a stranger who didn’t deserve forgiveness, because God did that for me.
MADD’s statement on faith and forgiveness: MADD is an organization not related to any faith or denomination, we serve everyone regardless of their personal beliefs.
We do recognize that faith can play a part in someone’s healing journey and wanted Erin to share how it played a part in her own, forgiveness can also very from person to person. Many people find that forgiveness is something that they embrace or reject, MADD respects each person’s choices about their own healing journey which may or may not include forgiveness. We thank Erin for sharing her own healing journey.
Erin’s story is also featured in Chicago Now.