On Sunday, March 28, 2010, my husband and I were gardening in our Tallahassee home's backyard. Andy and I were both washing up when the doorbell rang. The Leon County deputy sheriff and another woman stood there, and we immediately knew something was wrong.
They told us our 19-year-old daughter Ann had been shot. I couldn't even comprehend those words at first. I thought it had to be something minor, that everything would be OK. I thought maybe the baby store she worked for had been robbed, but then I realized it was closed on Sundays, and that she was supposed to be with her boyfriend Conor.
"Was Conor with her?" I asked.
"Conor McBride?" the deputy sheriff said. "Conor is the one who shot her."
Ann was the youngest of our three girls, and I always knew she'd be my last baby. I nursed her until she was 18 months old.
As a teenager, Ann loved theater—she met Conor in drama class—and was always directing and serving on tech crew. During her senior year, she performed a starring role in a play. And she adored babies: Many days, she would text us photos of toys and foot jammies while working at the baby store, though we never quite understood her love for Sophie the Giraffe. She and Conor started dating as sophomores at Leon High School. After graduation, they both enrolled at Tallahassee Community College.
We liked Conor. He was an honor student and in a leadership program. He was always very polite and well spoken. I truly believed he'd be my son-in-law some day. The couple argued a lot, but I was a teenager once and could relate to Ann's powerful emotions. We didn't realize, however, how intense their arguments could be—or that they lacked the grown-up skills to know when to walk away.
After talking to the police, we raced to Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, where the doctor gave us the chilling truth: Ann had been shot at close range through her right eye with a shotgun. My baby lay on a hospital bed with machines keeping her alive. She had some brainstem function but needed a ventilator to breathe. A bandage covered the lost fingers of her hand, which she'd instinctively raised to protect herself. Andy asked the doctor if he could touch her, worried that he might make her precarious condition worse.
How could that be possible, I wondered to myself.
At 10 p.m. that night, the hospital was quiet. My husband came into the intensive-care room with a man who looked vaguely familiar. It was Michael McBride, Conor's father. I sat across from Ann's bed and thought, Can I go to him? I stood up and walked across the room. And then another question popped into my head, Can I embrace him? I did. I always say it was God's grace that walked me across that room because I don't know how I would have done it otherwise.
Once I hugged him, Michael said simply, "I'm so sorry."
I knew it was just a matter of time before Ann was gone. That reality took longer to sink in for my husband. Slowly, her organs were failing and doctors told us things weren't working the way they should. While a stream of other visitors prayed with us and brought snacks, various doctors came by for consultations. A reconstructive specialist talked us through what could be done for her injured hand. Her skull had been left open to deal with her brain swelling. After that was stabilized, the specialist could do what he could to salvage her hand. I doubted she would survive the week; dealing with her hand sadly seemed low on my list.
Later, I watched a nurse tend to her injuries and check her vital signs. Caring for Ann had always been my job, but her injuries were far past what I could fix with Neosporin and a kiss. I'd never again be able to reach out and have that hand grasp mine.
Finally, Andy and I went to speak with our priest. We told him that the Ann we love and know was gone. But what were the Church's teachings on withdrawing life support? We didn't want to prolong the inevitable or watch our daughter suffer further.
We decided to take Ann off life support on April 2. But before we did, I knew I needed to see Conor. It's what my daughter would have wanted.
In jail, Conor could put four names on a list. I didn't know why, but I was one of them. Going down to see him that first time, my stomach was in knots. I went into the room, which was the only part that was like what you see on television—with glass panes and little plastic chairs and telephones.
Conor sat down on the other side of the glass, picked up the phone, and said, "I'm so so so sorry." He was crying.
"Conor, Mr. Grosmaire wants me to tell you that he loves you and forgives you," I said. "You know I love you. And I forgive you." I think he was surprised to hear me say that.
No one ever fully recovers from the death of a child. But I wanted to be someone who was happy and not hiding from the world, bitter and angry. Forgiveness was the way to peace—and I knew I would need that.
He asked how Ann was doing, and I spoke carefully: "She's holding her own." She would soon be disconnected from her life support, but I couldn't tell him that. We could never talk about anything related to the case, so there wasn't much to talk about.
I went back to the hospital, where Ann's best friend Khadijah had come to spend some time with her. Her sisters—Sarah, now 32, and Allyson, 28—also went in for a while. Then, it was time for us to say "goodbye."
When they took Ann off life support, we had planned on moving her to hospice, expecting it to take awhile. But when we went into the room, she wasn't breathing. She was very still. I held her hand, feeling her pulse slow. In the end, it was very quick—not hours or days. It was not even five minutes from the time they took the tube out until she passed away.
Andy came around the side of the bed and picked her up, held her to his chest, and wept. As I cried, a song came to me. I sang, filling the quiet room. It felt right to send her off with her favorite gospel song, "Angel Band."
I came to realize that there was a small miracle: Ann was taken from a place of violence, where she was all alone, and brought to the hospital so that we could all come. Her aunts and uncles and cousins came. We were able to say "goodbye" and be by her side.
In Florida, we have a policy of 10-20-life, which means that if you just have a gun and commit a crime, you're sentenced to 10 years. If it discharges, you're sentenced to 20 years. And if you harm or kill someone, it's 25 years to life. There was a little bit of comfort in knowing that the state of Florida was going to take care of this. Conor would spend the rest of his life in prison, and I didn't even have to think about it.
But two months after Ann's death, we met with the assistant state attorney, Jack Campbell. He discussed the process and how he would handle it all. We wouldn't have to testify. He also explained that even mandatory minimums were negotiable: "I can charge Conor with manslaughter and recommend five years." I just about came out of my chair. He quickly said, "Oh no, I would never do that. We're looking at 40 years or life."
That night, I couldn't sleep. It's one thing to say, "Poor Conor. He has to spend the rest of his life in jail." But if he doesn't have to, what am I going to do about that?
Plus, I cared—not about giving him a lesser sentence—but about a meaningful sentence. Only 4% of inmates in the Florida correctional system have jobs while they're in prison. Most don't. I struggled with the idea of this young, smart, able-bodied man sitting in a jail cell, not doing anything productive for the rest of his life. How is that any kind of compensation to us for the loss of our daughter?
A more meaningful sentence, to us, seemed like having Conor serve half his time incarcerated and then the other half doing community service in the areas that Ann would've wanted. I'm not defending him at all, but arguing teenagers with access to a gun is different than someone who plotted and murdered someone. What Conor did was horrible, but do we want to be defined by our worst moment? And do we want that to be the way we live the rest of our lives?
Our greatest hope for Conor was to help get him into the faith and community-based prison Wakulla, just south of Tallahassee. We met with an Episcopal priest, Allison DeFoor, who worked in the prison system. He asked why we weren't pursuing restorative justice. We'd never heard that term before.
Andy got The Little Book of Restorative Justice, and it captivated him. In a restorative justice conference, the victims have a voice. They can confront the offender and say what the offense meant to them, how it affected their lives. When they can explain that to the offender, the offender then gains empathy.
In the process, the offender also has to be willing to accept responsibility for what he or she did. That can be a tough sell. But when the offender can listen to a victim, accept responsibility, and also participate in sentencing, then they're more likely to complete the sentence and less likely to offend again. It changes everybody in the room.
Andy and Conor's father, Michael, started meeting for lunch every week. They'd both lost children in this. They discussed how restorative justice could be a way to help Conor. It was going to be a challenge to make a restorative justice conference happen in Florida. First, we had no legal authority to even suggest it. And second, it had never been done with a capital murder charge. It was mostly used for juvenile offenses and minor felonies.
Andy and I had different reasons for wanting to pursue restorative justice. My husband wanted to know what happened that day. He wanted to know what the argument was about, to hear what Ann's last words were, and to hopefully gain some understanding. I wanted people to know who Ann was. This was a way for me to participate in the process and to have a say in how I felt Conor should be sentenced.
Finally, on June 22, 2011, a little more than 14 months since Ann death, we came together for a restorative justice circle. Those were five of the most intense hours in all of our lives. The little conference room in the prison held 12 plastic chairs. It was very plain: linoleum floor, concrete block walls and long slit windows. Ann's best friend had knitted her an afghan, so we put that in the center of the circle, along with other things that reminded us of Ann.
Conor went and hugged his parents, then he hugged us. Jack Campbell read the charges against Conor. Father Mike said a prayer.
Then Andy and I spoke about Ann's life. We talked about her from the time she was born, how I knew she would be my last baby. She had a lazy eye and wore a patch as a child. She loved her guinea pigs and her horse, and she wanted to have her own animal rehabilitation center after college. Andy talked about how she was just 19 and was going to be going to the University of Central Florida in the fall to finish her degree.
The hardest part for me was talking about the children Ann would never have. Our older daughters may or may not have kids. But Ann worked at a baby boutique and loved kids. There was always no doubt in my mind that she would be the one who would give me grandchildren. It was very difficult for me to talk about it that day.
And Conor listened. He listened to all of it.
After that, it was his turn.
"Ann and I would fight sometimes, because I didn't understand the things that were important to her," Conor said. "She'd get disappointed in me."
This time was no different. They'd fought on Friday night, but Ann had made the dean's list and planned a picnic for them on Saturday. When they went, Conor wasn't very enthusiastic. They argued most of that night, too, and through the following morning. Both teens were exhausted.
Finally, Ann said she was leaving—he didn't know whether she meant for that day or for good—but she left her water bottle and he followed to the car to give it to her. When he asked what she wanted from him, she cried, "I wish you were dead!" He went back inside, loaded his father's shotgun, and put the barrel under his chin. He wondered, If I kill myself, would Ann blame herself? Just then, Ann knocked on the door, begging to be let in and interrupting him. When she found out what he was trying to do, she told him she didn't want to live either.
At so many moments, they could have changed the story. But neither of them had the maturity to walk away. Conor told us how he picked the gun back up, wanting to threaten her with it. She was sitting on her knees on the bedroom floor. He waved it around, tired of arguing and tired of everything. He asked Ann if that was what she wanted. She said no, but he said he pointed the gun at her and pulled the trigger. He immediately regretted what happened, but it was too late.
Right then, Jack Campbell called for a break and asked if we wanted to quit. But I had just heard the worst part. Why would I stop now? I hadn't come here to make sense of what happened. I knew it wouldn't. I wanted to continue because I wanted to have a say in his sentencing.
We all went back in. Conor said he considered killing himself but couldn't bring himself to do it. When he walked into the Tallahassee Police Department that day, he told police, "I just killed my fiancé, and you need to give me the death penalty." That was his mindset. He had killed her, so his life was forfeit.
A restorative justice circle typically ends with a discussion about punishment. I'd told Sujatha Baliga, our restorative justice lawyer, I would recommend a term of five years. After listening to the details, I wasn't sure I could still say five years. But I said it. Andy asked for 10 to 15 years with probation. The McBrides concurred. Conor said his fate was in our hands.
It took Jack Campbell several weeks to come back with his plea recommendation: 25 years straight or 20 years with 10 years of probation. Conor chose the latter.
Today, Connor is at Wakulla Correctional Institution, which is just 30 miles south of where we live. He has a job as a clerk in the law library. He calls us every Tuesday, and we go down and see him about four times a year.
As part of his sentence and eventual probation, Conor also has to take anger management classes in prison. He has to speak to people about teen dating violence. And when he's out, he has to do community service. To honor Ann, he plans on volunteering at the animal shelter or a wildlife refuge.
Since then, we've started speaking publicly. We wrote a book to share our experiences with people. Ours is a story of radical forgiveness. I'm a sane human today because of it. And people who have heard our story have been able to forgive others. I'm not expecting anybody to forgive anything as big as I have. But it's encouraging to see it when it happens.
My husband wanted answers. Through restorative justice, he got them. He doesn't have to worry that he could have done anything. He realized that there's nothing that he could have done.
The power of forgiveness is not for the offender. It's for the person who is forgiving. When you can let go of that debt that's owed to you, there's a freedom and a peace on the other side.
As Andy says, "We didn't have to go to jail with Conor." When someone is on death row, the family of their victims have been in jail too because they're tied to whether or not this man is executed or not. And I am so thankful that I don't have to live my life that way.
Kate Grosmaire is the author of Forgiving My Daughter's Killer, out now.
Follow Marie Claire on Facebook for the latest celeb news, beauty tips, fascinating reads, livestream video, and more.