Do you know anyone who made a huge confession on their deathbed? Now I do. Recently in the news, a man named James Washington was found guilty 27 years later of first degree murder as a result of a confession he made when having a heart attack in 2009. Washington was considered a suspect for many years for the brutal death of Joyce Goodner who was stabbed and beaten to death in Tennessee in 1995. However, the police had no evidence on Washington. That is until 2005 when Washington was having a heart attack in a hospital and, thinking he was about to die, called the security guard over and said “I got something I need to get off my conscience. I have killed somebody…I beat her to death.” Soon after, the guard told his supervisor. Washington recovered from his heart attack and was immediately captured by police and prosecutors. He now has been found guilty of murder and will serve at least 51 years in prison.
This doesn’t happen everyday. Usually killers keep silent about their deeds. But Washington couldn’t bear staying silent as he broke out “I got something I need to get off my conscience.” Why would he feel so compelled to confess his crime just before he knew (or at least he thought he knew) he was about to die? What would confessing do? Perhaps he thought this would erase his guilt. Or maybe he thought it would put him in a right standing with God before he died.
But it’s not just Washington who felt compelled to clear his conscience of his deeds before death. Recently, in a lecture at my graduate school, one of my professors told the story of a Jewish man named Simon Wiesenthal in a Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz toward the end of World War 2. His family had all been killed. One day he was pulled out of line in the camp and forced into a room where a young, dying, Nazi soldier sat who had asked before he died to see a Jew. He feared judgement in meeting his Maker and wanted forgiveness from a Jew before he died. He told his story to Wiesenthal and asked for forgiveness for his killings. As he told his story, Wiesenthal thought to himself “what right do I have to forgive this man? Surely the only people who have the right to forgive are those people who have been most brutally attacked.” After much thought, Wiesenthal felt the only sensible option was to deny the request.
Was it rational for Washington and this Nazi Soldier to confess their wrongs before their death? Is there an ultimate source of morality by which our lives are judged and to which we are accountable? It seems that both Washington and this Nazi Soldier confessed out of an intrinsic belief that there is an ultimate standard of morality outside of ourselves which we will be judged by. They both believed this standard could not be explained away.
When I heard that Washington was caught, I felt justice was served. I think we all know and believe that there is something disjointed about the world when injustice is not rectified and we are relieved when we see justice prevail. But even if Washington did not confess, my conviction is that justice would still be calling his name.
What do you think? Do Washington and the Nazi Soldier’s stories expose from our human experience that there is an ultimate standard of moral accountability and justice that ourselves and our society will all be judged by?