Penance behind Bars

How My Murder Confession Saved My Life

Penance behind Bars

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On Good Friday 2013, I got in my truck and started driving. I had some serious thinking to do. Over the next three days, alone with my thoughts, I covered more than a thousand miles—all the way from my home in southern New Jersey to Detroit, Michigan, and back.

I must have stopped at a dozen Catholic churches. Their tall steeples and crosses stuck out from afar, drawing me to go inside. Although I had been baptized Catholic, I had lost my faith and been distant from God for many years. But something had been weighing on me for a long time, and all that weekend I prayed for forgiveness and for the courage to do what I had decided I needed to do.

On Easter Monday, I walked into a New Jersey police station and turned myself in for a murder I had committed twenty-three years before.

It’s No Joke. Since it happened to be April Fool’s Day, the young officer at the front desk didn’t believe I was serious. “Did my sergeant put you up to this?” he asked with a laugh. “Twenty-three years ago? I wasn’t even born then!”

But it was no joke. On May 6, 1990, at the age of eighteen, I killed my friend Ricky. He and I had been robbing pharmacies and doctors’ and veterinarians’ offices in order to get anabolic steroids, which I had been using for a number of years.

That night I flew into a rage because Ricky and I had been found out for our many burglaries. I took out my anger by stabbing him in the woods behind our homes. A hunter found his remains a year and a half later.

The police questioned me, of course, but there just wasn’t enough evidence to charge me. I literally got away with murder. Shaken by the thought of what could happen to me, I changed my life and never got in trouble with the law again. I worked, lived a pretty good life, and fathered a son.

As the years went by, however, not a day passed that I didn’t await a policeman’s knock on my door. Not a day passed that I didn’t ask myself, “What if Ricky were still alive?” Maybe I had taken someone who was destined for greatness. Would he have discovered the cure to some horrible disease or made the world better in some other way? Would he have had children, and would they have played with my son? Now that my own son was getting to be the age Ricky was when he died, I even worried that God might take my child to even the score.

Coming Home. “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” the Bible says (Proverbs 1:7). That was true for me. Even though I had a wrong idea of God as an angry judge, he used my guilt and fear of eternal punishment to help me change course.

My mother’s death, about a year before I confessed, was another factor. “Now she knows that her son has killed another human being,” I thought on the day she died. Somehow, that made me want to come clean. I began to think about Ricky’s mother, too. Shouldn’t she have answers to her son’s death? She was getting older, and I didn’t feel it was right for her to get those answers only after she had died. Also, though I couldn’t bring Ricky back to life, I could at least give his family the satisfaction of seeing his killer brought to justice.

And then there was Pope Francis. I remember sitting in my living room watching the news about the papal conclave. When his election was announced on March 13, I went online and started reading about him. I was moved by his humility and desire to help the Church follow the Spirit in new directions. I was intrigued that he was a Jesuit and took the name Francis. I was moved by the way he urged Catholics to get out and evangelize. I felt so touched by Pope Francis that I opened the Bible for the first time in decades.

Jesus’ words jumped out at me. There was his sobering warning about the need to publicly acknowledge him, and the consequences of denying him (Matthew 10:32-33). There were his words of mercy and encouragement: the parable of the lost sheep, for example, and his assurance that there is “more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.” And again, “I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners” (Luke 15:7; 5:32).

I had no doubt that Jesus was calling me. The time had come to confess this horrible, hidden sin and receive God’s forgiveness to make a new start.

Any Regrets? After I turned myself in, my story made the news, and I got letters from across the country. Most people wanted to know whether I regretted having confessed and gone to prison. Many said that in my place, they would have kept quiet and taken the secret to the grave. Here in prison, many who know my story ridicule me. “Who in their right mind commits murder and gets away with it for over twenty years—only to tell on themselves?” they ask.

So do I regret my confession? No! That emotion got left behind the very second I decided to come clean. I have never felt more free than I do now. This is quite ironic, considering that I am writing from behind bars.

Prison Ministries. When I die, I will have to face God and answer for having taken a precious life that he called into being. That thought makes me tremble. Still, I have gone to Confession. I have acknowledged my sin, and I’m doing penance. I know God has forgiven me, and I am keeping my faith in the merciful Redeemer. (continued in the next article)

Meanwhile, I am doing what I can to grow in my faith. Most of the money I earn with my prison job is spent on religious books. We have weekly Mass, and Confession is available. Our prison ministry is headed by Sr. Elizabeth, an extraordinary nun who has been ministering as chaplain here for twenty-six years; she is a true blessing from God.

All I want today is to spend the rest of my life spreading the good news of Jesus. Doing this in prison, where many people are struggling with their own inner demons, is a daunting task. But most prisoners can tell I am at peace: I walk around smiling most of the day, which is rare here, and I try to lead by example. Sometimes prisoners come to me in secret to say they have been inspired by my decision to confess. They wish they had done the same, instead of falsely protesting their innocence and going to prison anyway. It warms my heart to hear their stories and to tell them what Jesus did for them.

So this is my story. I pray that Jesus will use it to give you hope. And may it also reach and help a troubled soul like the person I once was.

Steven Lee Goff is serving his sentence in a New Jersey prison.

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