Silverton resident Aba Gayle’s 19-year-old daughter Catherine Blount was murdered in 1980. In the years that followed, Gayle was filled with grief and anger and a desire for retribution. Her daughter’s killer was on death row at San Quentin and, as Gayle has written, she lusted for his death. But then after twelve years, everything changed. Aba Gayle joined Think Out Loud host Dave Miller as part of of our series of conversations exploring different perspectives on the death penalty.
"Think Out Loud" conversations about capital punishment in Oregon
The following excerpt of their interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
DM: What was Catherine like?
AG: Catherine was beautiful, she was a very exciting person. She marched to her own drummer. She was very fond of animals. When she died she had a dog with a brand new litter of puppies. She had an Arabian mare, she had two milk goats, and it was endless numbers of other animals. She was very happy, she was very musical, she was just a delight. She’s one of those people that everybody was attracted to.
DM: How did you find out that she had been killed?
AG: It was not like in the movies. I got a phone call one morning. Sheriff Landry said, ‘I’m really sorry but your daughter is dead. Your daughter was murdered. She was stabbed to death.’ And that’s when I began my journey of deep darkness.
DM: Can you describe what those days, and months and years were like?
AG: Yes, I can. I had a really good job at the time. Which probably saved my life, because I had a reason to get up in the morning and go somewhere. But on the weekend, I would find myself sitting in the corner and looking at the wall and realize I’d been there all day. And it was just — it was a kind of an illness that you go through. Some things that we go through in our lives, they’re just so difficult that our brains just can’t wrap around it. And so I went through all the normal stages of grieving, and part of that of course is denial. You know, you can’t believe that this has really happened.
DM: What role did anger play for you?
AG: I want to make it clear that if you don’t get angry when something terrible happens to you, there’s something wrong with you. It’s normal and it’s healthy to be angry. But the healthy thing in anger is to get into your anger: really feel it and work your way through it, and come out the other side. That didn’t happen to me, and it doesn’t happen to most families that have had a family member murdered. Because what happens is we get stuck. and I got stuck in such anger and such rage that when I look back now, I wonder how I survived that time in my life, because being that angry and full of rage is detrimental, not just to your mental health and your spiritual health but your physical health. People get sick.
DM: Was it fully focused on your daughter’s murderer?
AG: My anger and rage was absolutely focused on that inhumane and horrible person. The district attorney told me they were going to find him, they were going to put him on trial, they were going to give him the death penalty, and that when he was executed everything would be OK again.
DM: At that point, did you have sense for how long someone would spend on death row before they were executed?
AG: I thought he’d be executed right away. And from then on, no one ever contacted me, I never heard anything from anyone. And every once in while I would write a letter to the Attorney General’s office and say, ‘When is this going to happen? Why isn’t this happening?” So it goes on and on and on and on.
DM: Did you believe that on the day he would be put to death that things would change for you?
AG: I thought so. [I thought] I wouldn’t be in this terrible state of rage and anger and needing someone to be punished for what happened to Catherine, and what happened to our family. Because it doesn’t just happen to me, it happened to all of us.
DM: Have you talked to surviving family members of people who’ve been killed, who’s murderers actually have been put to death? And do you know if that kind of peace, if closure is actually true for some people?
AG: Some people say it is. But what we see is that people are still angry. And if the closure doesn’t include getting rid of that anger, then it really isn’t — there is no such thing as closure. On the life of our loved ones. the idea that something could happen that could give me closure makes me wonder if people know what love is all about.
Aba Gayle said she was in a place of intense anger and rage for eight years. And it began to change only slowly.
AG: I took these tiny little steps. I never said: ‘I don’t like feeling like this, I need to do something to change.’ The things that happened to me, just kind of came to me, at the right time, at the right place. And I started out by doing something as small and as easy as taking a class on meditation. and that, for the first time, I was able to sit and be still.
It took four years for this — and I didn’t even realize it was happening. What was happening was a whole different way of looking at life, a whole different philosophy of life, and a whole way of being. And at the end of the four years, I realized all of a sudden that I couldn’t go on wanting someone else to die, and I realized that if we were to execute Douglas Mickie, it would be to not honor Catherine — it would dishonor her life, which is the last thing I wanted to happen.
Aba Gayle told Dave Miller that she felt compelled to write to Douglas Mickie. She describes hearing a voice in her head as she was driving home from a mediation class. The voice told her she must forgive him and she must let him know. She got up at 4 am in the morning to type it out on a typewriter. The last part of the letter reads as follows:
“After eight long years of grief and anger I started my journey of life. I met wonderful teachers and slowly began to learn about my God-self. In the midst of a class studying A Course in Miracles I was surprised to find that I could forgive you. This does not mean that I think you are innocent or that you are blameless for what happened. What I learned is this: You are a divine child of God. You carry the Christ consciousness within you. You are surrounded by God’s love even as you sit in your cell. There is no devil; there is only the goodness of God. The Christ in me sends blessings to the Christ in you.
Do not look to me to be a political or social advocate in your behalf. The law of the land will determine your fate. Do not waste your last days on earth with remorse and fear. Death as we know it is really a new beginning. Hell does not exist except in our conscious minds.
I hope that this letter will help you to face your future. There is only love and good in the world regardless of how thing may appear to you now. I am willing to write to you or visit you if you wish. I send blessings to you and to your children.”
DM: What did it feel like to mail that letter?
AG: I still get chills on my spine when I think about mailing this letter. Because when I put it in the mailbox and I heard that click, all the anger, all the rage, all the ugliness that I’d been carrying around in my body. And at that time, it was 12 long years, was instantly gone. and in its place, I was filled with these feelings of love and joy and truly an inner peace. It was like I was in a state of grace simply by forgiving another human being.
DM: How did he respond?
AG: He responded by sending me a letter. And I have to tell you, I was afraid to open it. Because what kind of a letter would a man on death row write to you? Because I knew he was a monster, because that’s what everybody told me. So when I finally got this letter from him and opened it, I was pretty amazed by the spirituality that he showed. He told me about all of the losses in his life and the remorse that he explained to me, over and over, how remorseful he was. And he invited me to visit.
It’s very complicated to get into death row visiting at San Quentin and when I finally got in there and I looked around the room, and the think that surprised me is that there wasn’t a single monster in that room. They were all pretty ordinary people.
Aba Gayle said that first visit with Douglas Mickie lasted for two-and-a-half hours, and in the years that followed she continued to write and visit him. Dave Miller asked her to describe the relationship with him now.
AG: I’d say that Douglas Mickie and I have a lot of spiritual background in common, and I would consider him a friend. And I don’t think about him that much. My life has gone on. I have such a beautiful wonderful family and friends. And I love where I live and I wouldn’t be that way if I hadn’t been able to go through this forgiveness process.