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"Letting go of hatred, moving on with forgiveness"

Paul Pinkham
Award of Outstanding Merit - $1,000

Paul Pinkham has covered courts and legal affairs for The Florida Times-Union since coming to Jacksonville in 1990 and has won numerous state and national awards for his coverage. Before that, he was assigned to the state capitol in Columbia, South Carolina. Mr. Pinkham was educated at Rowan University in New Jersey and Kent State University in Ohio. A trained musician, he enjoys songwriting in his spare time and sings with a Christian band in Jacksonville.


Bert Baker hated the man who murdered his sister - hated him so much that he planned to kill him the day he got out of prison.

 

Baker, 50, even memorized the date by making it the PIN number for his bank card.

 

James "Gator" Leggett, true to his nickname, wasn't about to back down. He learned of the plot from a mutual friend.

 

He admitted murdering Vera Baker, his ex-wife, in a jealous rage in 1984. But he was serving his time and, if her brother wanted a fight, that's what he'd get.

 

"They would have had two homicides that day," said Leggett, 47.

 

Though both Jacksonville men admit being consumed with hate, there was no showdown when Leggett was released from prison in 2002. Both say God had other plans.

 

In fact, this month found them in prison together. But not as inmates.

 

They were there, along with Bert and Vera Baker's father, to share their journey of forgiveness, healing and reconciliation with those where Leggett once was. It's a bumpy road that began nearly a quarter-century ago with five tortured gunshots in a Northside mobile home - gunshots that forever changed two families in ways they never expected.

 

Vera Baker, 23, was shot and killed in her bedroom as she dialed police after hearing someone break through her front door.

 

The intruder was Leggett, who had followed her and a date around Jacksonville that night, her companion told police. The companion said he ran out the back door and heard screaming and arguing before everything went silent.

 

Four months later, Leggett pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 40 years in prison. Under 1980s procedures, he would serve roughly half that time before being freed.

 

Thrashing with God

Though he had no prior felony record and few disciplinary reports, Leggett said the rage that fueled his behavior that night turned into a deep-seated anger that permeated most of his life behind bars.

 

In 1999, he was sent to solitary confinement for three weeks for violating a prison rule. He said he went into "the box" plotting a second homicide, but his anger quickly turned toward God.

 

For a week, Leggett said, he argued and blamed God for all that was bad in his life, from his wife's miscarriage to his father's death to his own incarceration. He called God a liar.

 

"I thrashed with God," he recalled. "I said, 'You've got a real good talk game ... but where were you? You've got a lot of people fooled, but you ain't got this old redneck fooled.' "

 

After a week, he said, he was spent. For the next seven days, he just cried. Through his tears, he began to repent, purging years of hate and anger.

 

"I didn't realize I was reeking so bad with hate," he said. "I was so mad, I was gritting my teeth so long, my jaw actually hurt."

 

The third week, he said, he began singing praises. He emerged with an overwhelming desire to write to Vera's parents and ask their forgiveness for murdering their daughter.

 

Struggling to come to grips

What Leggett didn't know was that her parents, Jesse and Fay Baker, already had grappled with that decision and even inquired about visiting him in prison. The Department of Corrections wouldn't allow it.

 

A Methodist minister, Jesse Baker knew what his faith taught about forgiveness. But Vera was his only daughter. He admits he had a certain degree of hatred for her killer, followed by a time when he simply blocked Leggett out of his mind.

 

"When someone comes into your life and destroys something that is special to you, you go through that," he said. "Then you realize that 'I have to come to grips, and I don't want to stay angry all my life.' ... A lot of what's going on in the world today is unresolved anger."

 

Baker, 75, said his wife struggled less with the issue than he did. He said he made a decision in 1991 to forgive Leggett, but it didn't stick.

 

Then two years later he was at a Methodist retreat when a speaker read Christ's prayer for his executioners: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." (Luke 23:34)

 

Of all the Scriptures that deal with forgiveness, those words echoed in Baker's mind, daring him to take a leap of faith. He again made a decision to forgive, and this time it stuck.

 

Still, it was an ongoing process. He sought advice from former Jacksonville businessman Ron Gillihan, a prison ministry veteran who forgave his own son's killer. When Baker and his wife got Leggett's letter in 1999, he said it was difficult to respond but freeing once they did.

 

When Leggett was released three years later, Gillihan arranged a meeting with Jesse and Fay Baker.

 

"I remember that they asked me to pray. All I said was, 'God be here,' "Gillihan said.

 

Leggett and Jesse Baker said the tearful meeting was a breaking point.

 

"I looked him in the eyes and said, 'Mr. Baker, I ask you to forgive me for the horrible act I committed against your family and all the hurt and pain.' He said, 'I forgive you, my son,' “Leggett recalled.”We hugged, and he went limp in my arms. I ain't never seen a man sob like that."

 

Leggett said he was just as moved when Vera's mother served him cake and ice cream.

 

Forgiveness and prayer

When his parents told him about Leggett's letter, Bert Baker wanted no part of it.

  

"I had 17 years of pure hate for the man," the former bouncer said. "What I didn't realize was what that was doing to me and my family."

  

Not a particularly religious man, he said, he lived in a state of perpetual anger over his sister's murder. By 2001, he said, his anger had consumed him to the point where his life was about to bottom out.

  

"I was drinking heavy, smoking cigarettes and my wife was ready to walk out the door," he said.

  

One day, his parents brought up the letter again.

  

"I walked outside and told God, 'You win. I'm going to forgive him,' “he said.”At that moment, I felt like I could stand up again."

  

Baker said he assumed that was all he needed to do. He certainly had no desire to see Leggett or communicate with him, though the thought kept nagging at him.

  

Instead, he got involved with Kairos Prison Ministry at Putnam Correctional Institution in East Palatka, the same prison where Leggett had been. He recalled being skeptical when the chaplain cited Leggett as a former inmate who participated in Kairos and was doing well on the outside.

  

Baker said he was more inclined to believe one of the guards, who told him she didn't think Leggett would succeed because he was too angry.

  

In 2004 Leggett and Bert Baker wound up on the same Kairos team, preparing for a weekend retreat at the prison. No one knew what to expect when they met for the first time in 20 years. Others on the team prayed there wouldn't be a confrontation.

  

"He recognized me, and he hung his head," Baker recalled. "I walked up to him and said, 'It's been a long time coming.' He said, 'Sure has.' We both just started hugging and crying."

  

Undeserved grace

These days, James Leggett and Bert Baker joke, tease and love on each other like brothers. They stay in contact, calling every few weeks or so.

  

Leggett has re-married and has a solid job as a truck maintenance foreman. He still wears the tough exterior of an ex-convict who spent most of his adulthood behind bars.

  

But in quieter moments, he weeps with joy when he thinks about his relationship with the Bakers.

  

"It's a gift I received from the Lord and that family," he said. "It was like receiving something there was no way you were supposed to get - not deserved at all. Even now, when I listen to them talk, it's hard for me to understand."

  

He and Bert Baker began sharing their story in prison last year. Each tells his own part without giving away their connection until the end.

  

Jesse Baker joined them for the first time this month at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford. They said revisiting the years of hate and anger takes a lot out of them, but it's worthwhile if it can help those to whom they are ministering begin healing.

  

"We have a responsibility to honor her memory," Jesse Baker said of his daughter.

  

Most inmates are receptive and moved at least to consider the concept of forgiveness themselves, Bert Baker said.

  

Leggett acknowledged forgiveness for someone like him can be hard to accept.

  

"The average person, they can't fathom that. They can't do it unless they have that love in their hearts," he said. "But if Bert and I can be in the same room, look each other in the face and not kill each other, all things are possible."

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