Part of our series on America’s struggle for forgiveness.
On a cold day in March 2021, Delores White entered a courtroom in Erie, Pennsylvania. Delores, who was 67 years old, was dressed in a white blazer and glasses, her gray hair pulled into a low ponytail and a surgical mask covering her face. The courtroom was large, and Covid-19 restrictions on attendance made it feel empty. As others trickled into the room, Delores sat quietly, occasionally leaning over to confer with her lawyers or wave at family members. She remained composed until her daughter, Jamesha, entered the room. When she saw her, Delores began to cry.
Delores and her daughter were intensely close, but for almost a year, they’d been separated. In April of 2020, an argument between Delores, her daughter, and her daughter’s ex-boyfriend, Khalil Reynolds, had become violent. Khalil attacked Jamesha, the Whites said, and threatened Delores, and Delores, fearing for her daughter’s life, stabbed him once in the chest with a steak knife. The Whites then called 911. When the police arrived, Delores and her daughter pointed officers to the weapon. Khalil had died almost immediately, but it wasn’t clear to the Whites right away.
Delores, who had never been in trouble with the law before, was taken into custody and brought to the station, where she waived her right to legal counsel and gave a voluntary statement. She believed she’d acted in self-defense and had nothing to hide from investigators. In a videotaped recording of the interview, an Erie police detective asked her, “What did you feel was going to occur if you didn’t do what you did?”
She didn’t hesitate. “I thought he was going to beat my daughter to death,” she said. “You have not seen this boy, what he has done to my daughter.” She told the detective that she hadn’t meant to kill him. “I panicked. I had anxiety. The first thing that came to my mind was, ‘Oh my God, he’s going to murder her — I’m going to hurt him first.’”
The detective told Delores that he didn’t think she’d planned to kill Khalil. “Do I think that you had planned this? No,” he said. A minute later, he added: “I think at the end of the day your heart was in the right place in regards to like – you don’t want to see your daughter — just like any parent would not want to see their child — being struck or punched or hit by another person. I get it. I wouldn’t either. If that was my daughter, I probably would be physical back.”
Prosecutors disagreed. Delores was arrested that night. She was charged with first-degree murder — an intentional killing. It was just a month after the start of the pandemic. Delores has a number of health complications, including diabetes, congestive heart failure, hypertension, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, all of which put her at increased risk of serious illness if she contracted Covid-19.
Her attorney, Eric Hackwelder, petitioned for her to be granted bail, arguing that her compromised health, and lack of a criminal record, made her an appropriate candidate for pretrial release. In Pennsylvania, conviction of first-degree murder means life in prison, and under the law, judges in the state almost never grant bail for those with the charge. His petitions were denied.
In an attempt to ensure justice for people who have been wronged, the law creates clear binaries for criminal cases: an offender who has done wrong, and a victim who has been harmed. The system is not as well-equipped for situations where those lines are blurred, and the person designated as an offender is also a victim, or the victim is an offender. There are also cases, like Delores’s, in which additional harm is inflicted by the system itself.
The first-degree murder charges meant that Delores spent nearly a year in jail awaiting trial, at great risk to her health. “I’ve never been in jail in my life. I’ve never been in any trouble in my life,” Delores says. She worried she might never hug her daughter again. “It’s very devastating for a woman to be in jail that’s protecting herself. Once that fear creeps in, you have lost yourself.”
Forgiveness is not the primary purpose of the law — justice is. But the US legal system is a distinctively unforgiving one. “The United States is particularly punitive in defining, prosecuting, and punishing crimes, especially if the accused is a member of a racial minority,” writes Martha Minow, a professor at Harvard Law and author of the book When Should Law Forgive?
A legal system, says Minow, does not have feelings, and officials who serve those systems must sometimes put their feelings aside in order to seek justice. Still, officials can use their discretion in how they apply the law, and they can take into consideration the factors underlying an incident before deciding what charges to press. “Legal forgiveness comes when police, prosecutors, judges, juries, or executives having the pardon power decide to let go of justified grievances arising from violations of laws,” Minow said in an interview.
The problem is that individual discretion allows personal and systemic biases to creep in, and those biases can manifest in who is shown mercy under the law and who is not. Pennsylvania, like all other states, has self-defense laws. They allow a person to use deadly force if they reasonably believe it necessary to protect themselves or another person from serious bodily harm or death. The state also has multiple types of homicide charges, including manslaughter statutes, to account for different circumstances that might result in a person’s death. But domestic violence activists say that police and prosecutors are often less sympathetic to the claims of Black women like Delores.
It’s white men who benefit the most from self-defense and stand your ground laws. More broadly, Black Americans are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be charged more harshly, more likely to be convicted, and more likely to be given longer prison sentences.
The night Khalil was killed wasn’t the first time he was violent towards Jamesha, according to the Whites. They’d met a decade earlier, and for several years the relationship had been good; it started to splinter under the weight of his infidelity, and the conflict intensified as he began drinking more. The first time he shoved her, Jamesha says, she shoved back, and in response, he choked her. Delores warned her daughter to end the relationship. “I said, ‘Jamesha, he’s going to continue to hit you,’” Delores recalls. Her daughter wasn’t ready to accept it.
Two years later, it happened again. Moments after her mom had gone upstairs, the two began arguing, and Khalil, Jamesha says, overturned a glass table. Delores came back downstairs, terrified for her daughter and wanting to call the police, but Jamesha sent her away.
He punched a hole in the wall, Jamesha says, and knocked a microwave off the counter. Suddenly, she realized she was on the ground, and he was choking her. “I was trying to gasp for air, and finally I was like, he’s going to kill me tonight,” she says. She stopped trying to resist, and Khalil released her. When he let go, “All I could think is, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God. I gotta get out of here,’” Jamesha says. She ran for the door, but he came after her, so she grabbed a pot of potatoes that had been cooking on the stove and threw the contents at him before bolting out of the house. The police came, she says, but they didn’t make any arrests.
Once, she says, he knocked her to the ground outside of her house and slammed her against the wall of the building. In September 2019, she says, he split her lip. Jamesha called the police on multiple occasions, but Khalil often left before the police arrived and was never charged in connection to those incidents. (Court records show that in 2006, he was convicted of a misdemeanor related to a different incident of domestic violence in Virginia; Erie police charged him with failing to disclose the conviction when he tried to buy a gun in 2018.)
Officers once advised Jamesha to take out a protection from abuse (PFA) order. She didn’t do it. “I don’t think Khalil would have abided by a PFA,” Jamesha says. “I would have broken it too. Because I was stubborn, stupid. I loved him.” When contacted for comment, Erie Police Chief Dan Spizarny told Vox that if Jamesha didn’t have any injuries, officers would have referred her to the courts for a protection from abuse order.
“At some point, we do have to put it back on the individuals to take the appropriate steps,” Spizarny says. Jamesha says that her split lip was visible when she called the police in September 2019. Spizarny says there was “no mention of violence or injury” in the officer’s report. “We take seriously domestic violence and are prepared to make arrests when proper,” he says. “Unfortunately, victims are sometimes unwilling to work with police or domestic violence agencies.”
Seeing her daughter being abused was triggering for Delores. A few years into her marriage to Jamesha’s father, Delores says, “He started beating me, and I would tell my pastor and some of the church members. They kept on saying, just keep on praying he will change.” Instead, she says, it got worse. “It had gotten so bad that I was scared. Even if he raised his voice I would shake.” Eventually, she saw a psychiatrist who recommended she take classes for victims of domestic violence. There, she learned how to make an escape plan for herself. She began gathering her things and telling her kids: If your dad attacks me again, call 911.
A few weeks later, her husband pointed a shotgun at Delores’s son. Delores took her kids from their home in Michigan to North Carolina, where she had family. Within a month, Jamesha returned to live with her dad, and a few months later, Delores went back to Michigan to be with her, taking Jamesha and her brother to live in an apartment away from their father. As a child, Jamesha says, she was shielded from some of the worst of the violence, but she remembers broken glass, and her mother wrapped in bandages. In the late 1990s, Delores had a series of strokes, which she attributes to the stress of the abuse.
By 2000, Delores and Jamesha had moved to Pennsylvania and were trying to start a new life. The aftershocks lingered. Her mother would sometimes wake up with a start, Jamesha remembers, like she was still being attacked. Reflecting later on the night she killed Khalil, Delores wept when recalling how much she feared for her daughter’s life. “I was protecting my baby,” she cried. “I was so scared.”
Delores’s time in jail wasn’t an outlier. The number of people sitting in local jails without having been convicted of a crime has increased five-fold since 1970, due primarily to the increased use of monetary bail, which has created longer jail stays for people unable to pay their fines and fees. Others, like Delores, sit in jail because they face felony charges that make them ineligible for bail. People who sit in jail awaiting trial are more likely to be convicted than those who are released before trial; experts say it’s in part because people held awaiting trial are more likely to take a plea deal, regardless of guilt.
With her lawyer’s petitions to have her released denied, Delores faced a difficult choice: plead guilty to lesser charges, and serve what could essentially be a life sentence for an older person with health complications, or take her chances on a trial. Taking her case to trial was frightening, but so was accepting a plea deal that would guarantee a long sentence.
Delores believed that she had acted in legitimate self-defense. Hackwelder, her attorney, used to be a prosecutor, and he felt that she was charged too harshly. Charging her with a lesser crime, like manslaughter, may have allowed her to obtain pretrial release. “It’s so important to get these things right on the charging decision and evaluating the case,” he says, “so someone doesn’t needlessly have to sit in jail.” But not everyone waits in jail, even those facing charges as serious as Delores’s.
While judges in Pennsylvania technically cannot grant bail in first-degree murder cases under the state’s constitution, they sometimes find a way: In another case that took place in Erie during the same time period, a white defendant charged with first-degree murder who claimed he acted in self-defense was granted bail by a different judge. (The judge who handled Delores’s case declined to comment for this story. Vox reached out to the Erie County District Attorney’s office several times to request an interview about the trial, but did not receive a response. Assistant District Attorney Gregory Reichart, who prosecuted the case, also declined to comment.)
As one of the oldest women in Erie County’s jail, Delores built a reputation as the jailhouse grandmother. She joked with the other women and the female guards. “That’s how I survived,” she says. “I teased, and I prayed.”
Jail is not a place for the sick, especially during a pandemic. Covid meant that Delores often had to spend 23 hours a day in her cell, lying down in bed to avoid bumping her head on the bunk above. She says she wasn’t able to access all of the medications she needed to treat her health conditions. Despite her diabetes, her meals often consisted of only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bologna sandwiches, and cornbread for months. People incarcerated in jails and prisons are often given food that is nutritionally inadequate, and sometimes unsafe. The food is a common complaint among the residents of the Erie County Prison, where Delores was held.
She learned to cry quietly, because a female guard told her that crying too loudly could land her in “the hole,” where the jail housed people with severe mental illness. Most of all, Delores thought of her daughter and the terrifying prospect of never being able to see her again. During the pandemic, jail visits were limited to video calls, which Jamesha says cost $14 for 20 minutes. (County officials did not answer a list of questions regarding Delores’s account of her time in jail.)
Delores contemplated the possibility that she would never leave prison. “You don’t realize how important trees and flowers and people walking are until you go there,” she says.
Criminal trials tend to have a limited focus: What is the prosecution’s evidence that a crime occurred, and does that evidence prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt? In Delores’s trial, no one disputed the basic facts: that Delores had stabbed Khalil, and that she and Jamesha pushed him outside and then called 911. The only question for jurors was whether Delores was a murderer, or a mother legally defending her daughter. A series of videos Jamesha took on the night of his death proved to be some of the most critical evidence. The videos showed Delores furious at the way Khalil was treating Jamesha. (Jamesha would later explain that he was drunk, and that she wanted him to use the bathroom before falling asleep so that he didn’t urinate in bed.)
Khalil told Delores he wasn’t touching her and to keep her hands off him, but he also taunted her, making kissing noises at her and saying he loved her. Jamesha tried to stay calm; she later said that she was trying to be peaceful so as not to provoke violence. She wanted to show Khalil how he behaved when he was drunk. Twice while she was filming, he slapped the phone out of her hands. The next video showed the three downstairs. Khalil and Delores yelled at one another, and at one point, Delores appeared to be holding a knife.
The videos did not show the moment that was central to Delores’s trial. Delores and Jamesha say that it happened seconds after the final video ended, when Khalil turned around and began beating Jamesha with his fists. When she tried to intervene, brandishing the knife and warning him to stop, Delores says he threatened her, too. When he failed to stop hurting Jamesha, Delores stabbed him. He left a trail of blood in the living room, and stumbled. Jamesha and Delores pushed him out the front door, where he fell onto the steps below.
For Diana Hume George, a writer and activist who got to know the Whites after writing an op-ed about Delores’s case for the Erie Times-News, it was difficult to watch Delores portrayed in the trial as a “cold-blooded killer.” It seemed clear to her that “there was this intergenerational trauma of women who have had to deal with domestic violence” that was never fully addressed in the proceedings.
Of the two of them, only Jamesha testified at the trial. The mother and daughter both cried as Jamesha explained, from the witness stand, that her mother was defending her. Hackwelder told the jurors that Delores acted on instinct to defend Jamesha. “She had no choice, because that was the day she believed that her daughter was going to die,” Hackwelder says. “She did what any parent would do to protect her daughter and herself.”
The judge sent the jury into deliberations. They filed back into the courtroom only a few hours later. They had found Delores not guilty — not just of first-degree murder, but of all the charges prosecutors asked the jury to consider. Delores, they said, was not guilty of third-degree murder, or voluntary manslaughter, or aggravated assault. She was not guilty of reckless endangerment or of possessing an instrument of crime. They had found that Delores’s actions were justified. As the jury foreman announced the verdict, Delores grabbed her lawyer’s hand and asked him what it meant. “It means you’re going home,” Hackwelder told her. Behind them, Jamesha doubled over in tears.
Sharon Jones, Khalil’s foster mom, was devastated by the verdict. Her son was killed, and it angered her to see what she considered a one-sided portrayal of him at the trial. He wasn’t the type of person to attack someone, she says, only to defend himself, and the story the defense told about the prior abuse doesn’t square with what she says she heard when she was on the phone with the couple during some of their fights. “I’m not saying my child was perfect. He wasn’t,” she says. “But he wasn’t this raging maniac.”
Sharon doesn’t think the truth of what happened that night came out at the trial. It also didn’t bring about the legal accountability that she had hoped for. After the trial, she says, she has had to find forgiveness, a process more linked to her faith rather than any earthly justice system. “I wasn’t happy with the results, but I have to forgive them in order to live. I still hurt, but I can’t carry around that hate,” she says. “It hurt more that I had to. But I had to.”
This is the difficult thing about the legal system, whether it shows mercy to the accused or not: forgiveness is a personal transformation, a relational experience guided by unique circumstances and personal emotions, including one’s faith. No legal system can ensure it.
“Forgiveness is something that happens inside of people, but law and justice is a system that happens in society,” says Everett Worthington, a retired professor and psychologist who spent his career studying forgiveness. Worthington, whose mother was murdered in 1996, has personally experienced the law’s limitations with regard to forgiveness. Though the person responsible for his mother’s murder was never tried, Worthington chose to forgive his mother’s killer, understanding that the law will likely not bring him closure: “The law isn’t set up to have people forgive,” he says.
An adversarial, punitive legal system rarely leaves everyone satisfied. Restorative justice alternatives attempt to address some of the harm caused by bringing affected parties together in a dialogue, though they aren’t widespread in the US, particularly for adult offenders. So most are left with the traditional criminal procedure, where in the best of circumstances, the guilty party takes blame, and the victim feels that justice has been served. But it’s often more complicated than that. In White’s case, most of those involved feel justice wasn’t served. No one feels like they won. Instead, each of them, individually, is left to figure out what they can and can’t forgive.
In the days after Delores was released, family members traveled from Michigan to throw a surprise party for Delores’s 68th birthday, and later that year, when she was well enough, she traveled to visit family and friends in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Michigan. It was a chance to experience the freedom of movement she’d missed for a year and was worried she might never get to have again.
Her time in jail had other serious costs. Being confined in jail — and staying in her bed most of the day — weakened Delores’s legs, causing her to fall more often in the months following her release. Jamesha says her mother has been sleeping a lot more than she used to. Recently, Delores tested positive for tuberculosis, for which she is now undergoing a nine-month treatment. “I don’t know if I caught tuberculosis in there,” she says, but, “I think I did.” (Studies have shown that incarcerated populations have higher rates of tuberculosis than the general population.)
The aftermath isn’t just physical. “It took me a while to be alone,” Delores says. Sometimes, she says, she’ll be doing okay and then will be flooded with memories of the killing and its aftermath, and the remorse she feels over what happened. She still dreams about it too. It’s difficult for her, even now, to discuss. Sometimes, her mind goes blank, like it can’t process the totality of what happened. She’s dealt with the pain by praying. “I ask the Lord for forgiveness and to help his family out,” she says, referring to Khalil. She doesn’t expect the memories to ever fully go away. “I don’t think you ever get over it.”
Delores’s pastor, Daryl Craig, prays that each of the people affected can find forgiveness. “Society on the whole, not just the criminal justice system, plays a big part in not allowing individuals to heal,” he says. When he speaks to his flock, he sees how hard it can be for people to forgive themselves, and each other. “I know that forgiveness, though, is one of the most powerful and beautiful tools that we have for healing,” he says.
This is how Delores has tried to find forgiveness: by returning to the faith that sustained her through her time in jail. Jamesha, too, has tried to let go of the self-blame she felt in the aftermath of Khalil’s death. Forgiving the system, though, might be too much to ask. “My mother is irreplaceable. I only get one,” Jamesha says. “For her to be punished the way she’s been punished, I think, is totally unfair.”
She is grateful that her mother survived incarceration during a pandemic. Still, she can’t stop wondering: What if she hadn’t? “My mom was basically deemed guilty by the time she served a whole year,” she says. “It’s like she’s still being punished for the crime she was acquitted of.”
Marin Cogan is a senior correspondent at Vox. She last wrote about school shooting survivors for The Highlight.
Madeleine O’Neill is a reporter for the Daily Record in Maryland. Previously, she was the courts reporter for the Erie Times-News.