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Cover 06/12/2013

Murder Destroyed Charity Lee's Family, Forever Altered Her Concept of Justice





Paris and Ella, ages 10 and 2

On a sweltering Monday evening in May, Charity Lee sat near a makeshift pulpit inside the Greater Faith Church on the city’s East Side. Before her sat 10 children whose lives had been forever changed by the sins of their parents.

The kids stared at the concrete floor and fidgeted nervously until Lee broke the silence. In her distinctive Southern drawl, she cracked jokes about her bulging eight-month pregnant belly. First the kids giggled. Then they began to talk back. Eventually, they told Lee why they were there.

One 4-year-old boy didn’t know why his father is in prison, how long he’s been there, or if he’ll ever get to see him again outside the confines of a visitation room. Another 9-year-old boy explained that his dad “used to do everything with me, we used to play every day.” I only heard him mutter the word “prison” before his voice trailed off into a faint, indecipherable whisper.

“I bet you miss them,” Lee said. “And I bet sometimes you’re angry about them, sometimes scared about what happened, confused.”

Lee was there because six years ago the sins of her teenage son forever altered the course of her life. It was then that 13-year-old Paris Bennett beat, choked, and then fatally stabbed Ella, his 4-year-old sister, while Lee was away at work.

Lee’s life has been shaped by murder. She’s both the daughter of a father who was murdered and child to the mother accused of the crime. She’s also the mother of a murdered daughter and to a murdering son. Perhaps due to the nature of intra-family violence — where any line dividing families of victims and offenders quickly vanishes — Lee now says she flatly rejects any notion of justice that centers on vengeance.

“If you’re going to try to do something to prevent violence, or to mitigate its impact after the fact, you have to move away from this position of fear, revenge, and hatred,” Lee told me.

Lee still has her own struggles. She fears her son, and last year asked a judge to send him to an adult prison to serve out the rest of his 40-year sentence. But while she struggles to love him, she’s been an open advocate for the rights and better treatment for Paris and more than 2 million Americans like him locked up in prison. Paris’ crime fixed Lee’s stance against the death penalty, and along with sharing her story in jails and prisons across the country, she regularly visits Texas’ death row. Last year, she was arrested alongside 13 other anti-death penalty activists on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, protesting capital punishment on the 35th anniversary of the Court’s landmark decision to reinstate it.

But Lee also speaks across the country advocating for victims of violent crime with her non-profit ELLA Foundation, named after her murdered daughter. Since Ella’s death, she’s helped counsel families of both murder victims and murderers.

“Violent crime rips families apart,” she told me. ‘There are no sides. Just a whole lot of suffering for anybody connected to it.”

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