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Justice & mercy

When a repentant man goes free for another man's murder, how do survivors cope?

Justice & mercy

Sunday, March 26: Another brilliant day in Newport Beach, Calif. Edward Stephenson, 77, rose from bed, shuffled outside, stooped in the driveway to retrieve the morning paper. He carried the paper back inside, fed his toy poodle, poured a bowl of cereal, scanned the headlines.

All the while, Mr. Stephenson also did what he's done every day for more than 20 years: He tried not to think about James Tramel.

Four hundred miles north, Rev. James Tramel snapped on his clerical collar, donned his vestments, and prepared for a milestone morning. Ordained as an Episcopal priest in 2005, on March 26 he presided for the first time over a worship service at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Berkeley. As he does every day, Mr. Tramel also prayed for Edward Stephenson. Mr. Stephenson's son, Michael, has been dead for over 20 years. And Mr. Tramel helped to kill him.

In 1986, Mr. Tramel, then 17, was convicted of second-degree murder in connection with the stabbing death of Michael Stephenson, 29, a vicious "thrill kill" that outraged the residents of the seaside enclave of Santa Barbara. Mr. Tramel spent 20 years in prison, where he grew from a boy to a man, claimed Christ as savior, and became the first inmate ever ordained as an Episcopal priest while incarcerated.

Over the passionate objections of the Stephenson family, Mr. Tramel was paroled March 19. He walked out of Solano State Prison and headed straight to a new job as assistant pastor at the Church of the Good Shepherd. As he stepped into freedom, news cameras rolled and print reporters scribbled furiously about the earnest, soft-spoken, and apparently repentant murderer who had turned his life around.

Reporters also interviewed Edward Stephenson, who reminded them that his son, Michael, was the wholly innocent victim of a brutal crime, and wondered aloud about a justice system that allows someone to kill and then go free. "Even if [Mr. Tramel] is redeemed, there are plenty of people in prison he could help," Mr. Stephenson told WORLD. "Tramel should preach from behind bars."

In the case of Michael Stephenson and James Tramel, social and religious ideals collide in a perfect storm of sin, pain, and justice: Repentance versus consequences. Justice versus grace. Righteous anger versus guilt-stained joy. And hanging over it all, the tragic truth that while redemption is always a possibility, restitution is not.

In 1985, James Tramel and David Kurtzman, both 17, were students at Northwestern Preparatory School, a military school in Santa Barbara. After some Northwestern kids clashed with the City Rockers, a Latino gang, a young, brash Mr. Tramel organized a vigilante crew bent on revenge.

He told Mr. Kurtzman and another classmate to buy dark clothing, ropes, and materials to make sodium bombs. He also taught the others how to use a knife offensively and defensively. Then they went hunting for the City Rockers.

Mr. Tramel carried Mr. Kurtzman's 6-inch knife off campus, and later that night he gave it to Mr. Kurtzman. The boys never found the Latino gang, but about 1 a.m., while walking through a city park, they heard music floating up from a gazebo. Investigating, they found Michael Stephenson.

Press accounts described Michael as a "transient," but his family says he was on a backpacking trip and had stopped in Santa Barbara to see an old friend. Messrs. Tramel and Kurtzman found Michael in the gazebo, bunked down in a sleeping bag.

What happened next is in dispute. Press accounts and Mr. Tramel say he had his back to Michael, talking to him about the weather, when he heard the victim say, "No, my friend."

"Michael was on his hands and knees," Mr. Tramel wrote in a 2005 account of the crime, "and Kurtzman was leaning over him. . . . I saw the knife in Kurtzman's hand, and before I could say or do anything, I saw Kurtzman cut Michael's throat. . . . I gasped, 'Dave, stop!' Kurtzman looked up at me with a crazed look in his eyes, and he was trembling."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a letter that reversed parole granted to Mr. Tramel in 2004, added other disputed details: that "Mr. Tramel told Mr. Kurtzman that the man [Michael Stephenson] was one of the gang members they were looking for"; that Mr. Tramel returned to the dorm and bragged to other students that they had "bagged a Mexican"; that Mr. Tramel wagered one of them $50 that his story was true.

Mr. Tramel denies telling Mr. Kurtzman that Michael was one of the gang members. He also denies bragging about the murder to other students. But he told WORLD he does not dispute the bottom line. "He was the one that started this whole thing," Edward Stephenson said. "It was his idea, his follow-through, his everything. When he had a chance to stop it, he let things go on."

Mr. Tramel was convicted of second-degree murder with a sentence of 15 years to life, and he says he accepts his responsibility in Michael's death: "Kurtzman was a gun that I had loaded and cocked. . . . That makes me responsible for Michael's death."

At age 19, Mr. Tramel rolled into San Quentin state prison and later was transferred to Solano State Prison in Vacaville. He was not a model prisoner: Over 20 years, he was disciplined twice for minor misconduct and twice for fighting. But he did by all accounts quickly become involved in self-improvement and community service.

Then, in August 1993, Mr. Tramel says he chose the narrow way. While working in the Solano prison hospital, he sat up one night talking of eternal things with a prisoner who was in the last throes of stomach cancer. The man looked at Mr. Tramel and asked, "James, what do you believe?"

"I told him what I'd been afraid to say for a long time-that Jesus is the Son of God and had died for our sins." As Mr. Tramel held his hand, the man died.

At his next parole hearing, in 1994, Mr. Tramel told the board he wanted to enter the Episcopal priesthood. By 1998, he had earned a bachelor's in business from Thomas Edison State College and had become an Episcopal deacon. After extensive testing and interviews, he was admitted to the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, an Episcopal seminary in Berkeley. Change wasn't easy; in 1999, he was disciplined for "mutual combat," a fight he says began when he was attacked by cellmates.

Faculty, prison officials, and members of what now is his home church "were enormously skeptical at first, as I would've been if I'd gotten a letter from some guy in prison," Mr. Tramel said. "It's always been a matter of people coming around from getting to know me. I expect that will always be the case."

In June 2005, Episcopal Bishop William Swing traveled to Solano prison and ordained Mr. Tramel. By the time of his 2005 parole hearing, Mr. Tramel had amassed nearly 200 letters from guards, counselors, seminarians, and clerics avowing that he was a changed man who deserved another chance to live in society. Even Pat McKinley, the Santa Barbara district attorney who helped send Mr. Tramel to prison, advocated for his release.

But the Stephenson family remained steadfast in their opposition, writing letters to the parole board and gathering signatures on petitions. Twice a year, Mr. Stephenson trekked north to testify at parole hearings for both murderers. Each time, prison board protocols forced him to relive Michael's death in graphic detail.

"It's horrible when he goes through the hearings," said Mr. Stephenson's fiancée, Barbara Yates, who has accompanied him for several years, and will continue to do so as Mr. Stephenson fights Mr. Kurtzman's parole. "They have to tell about the whole murder all over again, every time."

Even 20 years later, Michael's face floats through his father's mind "maybe three or four times a day," Mr. Stephenson said. "It's very painful. There's always something missing. What would he have done? What would he have been?"

Members of the Stephenson family WORLD interviewed said Mr. Tramel is a "jailhouse convert," a slick operator who found a path out of prison. When the board this year announced Mr. Tramel's release, "he didn't bow his head or look up and thank God," noted Edward Stephenson's sister, Bernice Bosheff, who attends a small, conservative Lutheran church in tiny Aguanga. "He turned to his right and hugged his attorney."

It hurts, Mrs. Yates said, that the media has "glorified" Mr. Tramel, while turning to his victim's family only long enough to scribble down their resentment. "I don't think society realizes what victims' families go through," she said. "It isn't like stealing, where you can make restitution. Michael can never come back."

Mr. Tramel wishes he could. He has written letters of remorse to Michael's family, but Mr. Stephenson refuses to read them. "In 1985, I didn't know Michael, but he has been with me every step of the way," Mr. Tramel says now. "I have tried to order my life in a way that honors him. I pray for the Stephenson family every day, that God's grace will open a path to reconciliation. I am intimately aware that I have no right or claim to their forgiveness. It's something only they can give."

Lynn Vincent

Lynn Vincent

Lynn is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine. She is the New York Times best-selling author or co-author of a dozen non-fiction books, including Same Kind of Different as Me. Lynn resides in San Diego, Calif.