Monday, November 21, 2016

RIP, TJ!

We may claim the title “Christian,” but even with our strong beliefs, it can be pretty difficult to reach agreement on redemption.

We love to look back at heroes in the Bible to show how mightily God can and has worked to change lives:  Moses was a murderer, David was an adulterer, Rahab was a prostitute, etc. 

We readily agree that in Christ there is total forgiveness, as we point to the convicted felon on the cross next to our Lord.  We affirm our belief that God can change lives, as we point to St. Paul, who, before preaching and writing New Testament books, spent his days persecuting Christians and condemning them to death.

But that was back in those days.  Today, it’s a difficult proposition. 

I bring all of this up as I mourn the loss of a friend, T.J. Spytma.  TJ was involved in a heinous crime, influenced in part by drugs, back in the 70s when he was 15 years of age.

As he spent the next 40 years in prison, he never once forgot his terrible misdeed.  After some rough-and-tumble early years behind bars, he made important decisions to change his life.  And change it, he did!  I had opportunity to visit him in prison shortly after getting into this business, and friendship was immediate.  He was a neat guy, doing neat things for others, making his life worthwhile, and choosing a better path for the future.

Yet, when it came time for parole consideration in 2014, many just couldn’t see it.  John Hausman’s  M-Live articles, bearing headlines labeling TJ a “Notorious Murderer,” resulted in pages upon pages of comments from readers who, emboldened by the cloak of anonymity, dared to make all kinds of nasty comments and predictions.

In his public hearing Assistant Attorney General Scott Rothermel held to his position of never recommending parole where crimes of an assaultive nature occurred. Muskegon’s Chief Trial Attorney Raymond Kostrzewa (now a District Judge), flashing letters from families of the victim, insisted that the crime was too brutal to allow for any kind of redemption.  Nope, no hope for this guy.  Keep him behind bars.

But thanks to the courage of presiding Circuit Court Judge Tim Hicks, who had even met with members of the victim’s family, the Parole Board made a favorable decision.  Judge Hicks was the successor judge for the case, and his veto could have stopped everything.  But after a careful review of all the facts, and explaining that this was one of his most difficult decisions ever, he agreed to give TJ a chance.  The Parole Board approved TJ’s release, and he was welcomed by longtime friend Penny Ryder, who helped to give him a new home and a new life in the Ann Arbor area.  The nay-sayers were wrong.  TJ immediately became a happy and productive citizen.  For two precious years!

The story came to a tragic end last week when our friend TJ died of natural causes at the young age of 56.

We tip our hat to those who paved the way for TJ’s second chance.  We show honor and respect for the person he became.  We extend sincere condolences to those in mourning.  And we express sadness for those who just can’t come to grips with the fact that redemption of human lives is, indeed, still possible.



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