In the early hours of Friday, January 1, 1982 the seventeen-year-old Kevin Tunell made the biggest mistake of his life. At a New Year’s party near Washington DC, he got very drunk; his friends urged him not to drive but he insisted, “Nothing will ever happen to me.” On the road, he lost control of the wheel, and smashed into another car, instantly killing eighteen-year-old Susan Herzog. After pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter and drunk driving, Tunell was sentenced to three years probation and one year of community service.
But Susan’s parents, understandably, didn’t feel that this was sufficient punishment. They sued him in civil court for emotional distress, for $1,500,000.
Then quite unexpectedly, after meeting Kevin, Susan’s parents offered to settle out of court. The terms of the ruling included an amount of $936, one bizarre condition:
The settlement required that Kevin pay the $936 by sending them a check for $1 made out to the deceased Susan Herzog, every Friday for the next eighteen years—one for every year Susan had been alive.
The penalty seemed like he had been let off easy, but soon the burden of guilt proved too much for Kevin to bear. He tried to present the Herzogs with two boxes of pre-written checks, dated each week through 2001, a year longer than required. The couple refused to accept them.
After seven Sisyphean years of the weekly purgatorial ritual, Kevin began to miss a few payments. The Herzogs promptly dragged him back into court. Giving an account before Judge Jack Stevens, a teary Tunell admitted that the agonizing guilt he felt each time he filled in Susan’s name had become unbearable.
You get to a point where you kind of snap—and you say, it hurts too much… I used to, like, lie in bed, and if I heard … noises, I used to think Susan was going to come to visit me.”
He was sentenced to 30 days in jail. Susan’s dad, Lou said:
Susan’s death is there every waking moment. But every time we don’t get a check, there’s only one thing that comes to our mind: He doesn’t remember.”
The Herzogs insist that their insistence is not vindictive retribution. Susan’s mother, Patty explained,
We do want him to remember, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want him to accept it and get on with his life.”
Interesting. That’s reasoning that Dostoyevsky could have used for a provocative sequel to Crime and Punishment.
Naturally, I feel deeply for the grief of the parents who mourn the loss of their precious daughter. I can’t imagine their pain. But there is a part of me that shudders to think of what it must have been like for Kevin to relive the unshakeable regret so frequently. I can’t imagine what my own life would be like if my sins were held before me on such an incessant and recurring basis. The tunnel vision of focus on sin with no relief of basking in mercy, would leave me a basket case.
What a blessing it is to know that, though there are consequences in this life for our sins, mistakes, and weaknesses, there is the promise of an afterlife with no remembrance of our sin to haunt us.
Consider these four glorious passages, which I trust will bless you this week, and help you be forgiving to others.
Rom 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
1John 1:9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Col 2:13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses,14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
Ps 32:1 Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. 2 Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
May we cultivate tunnel vision, fixating on the grace we need, focussing on the cross of Calvary.