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The Journal Gazette

  • Two hands clutching prison bars

Wednesday, December 02, 2015 3:34 pm

The power of forgiveness to confront crime

Kara Hackett | The Journal Gazette

When a man shot Misty Wallace in the face, the bullet went through her cheek, ruptured her esophagus and nearly killed her.

The man stole her purse and tried to steal her car, too. But the car wouldn’t start, and lucky for Misty — if you want to call it lucky — because her head was under the front tire.

It happened at a Burger King pay phone on the south side of Indianapolis in 1992. The shooter left her there to die until a stranger showed up and called an ambulance.

Before Misty went into surgery, they called her family into the room to say goodbye. But she lived and made a miraculous recovery, and if you saw her speaking at the University of Saint Francis on Feb. 25, you wouldn’t even know that there was a time when she couldn’t speak at all.

Today, she can walk and talk, and you can’t see any scars on her face. But the experience scarred her emotionally for years, she said, to the point that she tried to commit suicide.

Against her wishes and requests, the man who shot her was let out of prison after doing 8 years and 8 months for attempted murder. She issued a restraining order against him, but it only made things worse for herself. Her past kept her from moving forward.

So in a moment of desperation after the restraining order expired, she did the unthinkable. She sent a Facebook message to her offender, who was now out of prison, and she told him her story.

That’s when the presentation at Saint Francis took a shocking turn. Not only did Misty call and forgive the man who shot her, she called him on stage at Saint Francis as her co-presenter and one of her “best friends.”

Together, Misty, and the man who nearly killed her, Keith Blackburn, are ambassadors for a program they think has the potential to revolutionize America’s criminal justice system by getting victims and offenders to share stories about the impact of violent crime.

It’s called Bridges to Life, and it’s a 501(c)(3) nonprofit started in 1998 by a man named John Sage in Houston, Texas, after his sister was brutally murdered in 1993. Now Misty and Keith want to help implement it across all of Indiana’s prisons, too. So they’re giving speeches around the state, and their speech at Saint Francis was the most powerful testament of hope I’ve heard in a long time.

In February, I wrote about how America is the world’s largest jailer. Our prisons have revolving doors. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, 76.6 percent of offenders are rearrested after they’ve been out of prison for five years. But the Bridges to Life program has reduced recidivism rates to only 14 percent at prisons in Texas where it’s been tested.

The program is reducing the cost of prisoners for taxpayers, too. Incarceration costs an average of $90,000 per inmate for the average length of stay. The Bridges to life program costs less than $230 per graduate, the website said.

But if you ask me, the most powerful reason to support Bridges to Life is the impact it’s making on individuals like Misty and Keith.

Although Misty’s healing came from direct contact with her offender, the program focuses on facilitating group discussions among randomized victims and offenders who have expressed the desire to change, and it’s victim-driven, Misty said. So the victims get to decide their level of involvement.

Misty knows from experience that these situations can be difficult to talk about. But she also knows that sometimes sharing a story with the person who hurt you is the only way to heal, and Keith knows the transformative power of a testimony, too.

Like many offenders, he grew up in the system, going to juvenile facilities as a kid, gang banging, abusing drugs and committing crimes before he shot Misty. But about halfway through his prison sentence, at age 21, he decided to change himself. He found a mentor at the prison, became a Christian and admitted to himself that he was guilty.

He even tried apologizing to Misty when he got out of prison, but she had a restraining order, so he let it go.

By the time Misty called him, he was taking classes to become a prison chaplain, and even though he thought he was ready to hear about the incident from his victim's viewpoint, he didn’t realize how difficult it would be.

“As the offender, you only see the name of the person you’ve hurt,” Keith said. “You don’t hear the story, and it’s easier to do the time and forget the name than to hear the story and deal with it.”

So the idea behind Bridges to Life is to not let criminals off the hook by doing time and being done. It’s about forcing them to face themselves and the consequences of their actions. And it’s working.

At one of their speeches around the state, Misty said she asked Keith to watch her purse while she used the restroom. Neither of them realized the power of that simple gesture until she said it.

“I didn’t even think about it,” Misty said. “This forgiveness stuff is real.”


Want to support Bridges to Life?

Visit and contact them for more information or donate money to Bridges to Life Indiana, P.O. Box 385, Plainfield, IN 46168.