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A Great Man
One of the most pressing questions asked when a horrible crime is committed is simple: "why did this have to happen?" Colorado citizens and the correctional community were stunned by the boldness of a recent crime committed in Colorado. Our Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, Tom Clements, was gunned down standing in the front doorway of his own home. As I pondered that very question, through my own tears, regretting that someone so committed to change and to serve in positive ways was condemned himself to die by one of those he hoped to liberate within the system.
Unfortunate news was added to this horrific event: this crime was found to be coupled with the preceding murder of a local pizza delivery man, Nate DeLeon, perpetrated by the same individual. Like Tom, he was a husband and loving father of two small children. It seems senseless and horrific that he lost his life for a pizza delivery jacket and a pizza box, tools to gain access for the latter murder. To some, life is cheap and a necessary means to an end.
What moves a person to rationalize these actions as necessary, and even justifiable? What twist of a mind or heart for that matter, finds course for hatred so deep and compelling so as to exact pleasure from altering the fabric of not only one human being, but that of every life they have impacted over the course of a lifetime? What measure of evil resides in humans that causes them to think such offense excusable and beneficial to their cause?
"The whole field is just shocked. It's devastating. He was well respected especially as a leader and a voice of reason who showed that it's OK to be a head of corrections and care about people," said John Wetzel, head of Pennsylvania's corrections department. I echo those statements, and after serving 20 years in the field, found myself hopeful through this new administration for lasting change.
Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for alternatives to incarceration echoed the sentiment. "The reverberations from his death are multilayered because it's so much broader than just his family and the Colorado Department of Corrections family," she said. "He was really an amazing leader within Colorado."
Donner said that shortly after Clements arrived in Colorado, he came to her office to talk. She said he told her that while he was growing up, he visited a family member who was in prison. "He shared how that affected him and said that he understood the role of corrections and the impact of corrections on a very deep level."
One priority on Tom's agenda,, she said, "was an overhaul of how the state handles what corrections officials call administrative segregation, which most of the public knows as solitary confinement." This man had a heart. His murderer apparently knew nothing about who he was, he possibly saw his position not who he really was, and thus played into the hand of evil.
Hickenlooper said the topic came up when Clements was interviewing for the job.
Eventually, Clements laid out a plan to analyze the issue and offer more active rehabilitation to prisoners segregated for "not sufficiently important reasons," Hickenlooper said. Clements was one of the first in the nation to question the wisdom and effectiveness of the practice, Jones said.
As appeals on behalf of killer Nathan Dunlap seem to be nearing an end, Clements had begun looking into the logistics of possibly overseeing Colorado's first execution since 1997. Now Dunlap's life sentence was commuted. Another injustice for the victims and their families. We have a long way to go in America, particularly where there is not the least indication of repentance or remorse.
Here was a man who believed in redemption for prisoners, and even was opposed to the death penalty, something highly unusual within the system. Even I support the death penalty and I have served as a prison chaplain and believe in the necessity for some to complete their time when they are unrepentant, and even belligerent as to their right to expend the life of any other individual.
In this case with inmate Ebel, as with so many others, we may never know. We will once again be forced to reckon with this declining civilization, and loss of moral values, and come to some sort of reconciliation with our own will to go on with hope drawn (in my case with faith in God) from whatever source we rely on.
Experts will speculate the motive, and uncover evidence that points somewhere, but that will not inhibit or slow down the next action of violence, not through gun control, not through psychiatric treatment, not through probably any means known to man. That may be the hardest part of it all, no simple explanation, no motive, no sense made of any of it.
So it remains for us to choose to build a memorial in our hearts to those who live on in the hearts and memories of their loved ones who serve in such a capacity as Tom Clements, who clearly understood the necessity for objective and innovative ways of dealing with the millions of people warehoused in prisons across the nation.
For everyone serving in any service oriented, protective agency every day that includes danger and sacrifice at the expense of their lives, we owe appreciation.. They knew the price, and they choose to pay it for an ideal, of keeping their family safe, and their country and those they love free. For that alone, they deserve respect.
To the family of Nate DeLeon, it will never make sense either. Killed in the preparation for a future crime, by a lifetime criminal, who apparently had no conscience, stealing his jacket and a pizza box and doing so at the cost of his life. Let's not forget to pray for the survivors of these tragedies. These are difficult things to overcome for anyone.