After his son was murdered, Walt Everett did what few would. He reached out to the man who killed him.
By Christopher Hann. Photos by Bill Cardoni
Bucknell University, Lewisburg, Pa. September 2011.
The first-year seminar is titled “Timeless Questions, Difficult Times: Making Meaning of Uncertainty,” and you might have to search the darkest corners of the planet to find a guest speaker more qualified to hold forth on that topic than the Rev. Walter Everett C’56, T’60.
A retired Methodist minister, Everett is something of an authority on timeless questions and difficult times, and he’s spent years trying to make meaning of uncertainty. He’s come to Bucknell, where he sits at the head of a small classroom crammed with 15 students and two instructors, to weave his extraordinary tale one more time, a retelling that will leave some of those in his young audience questioning their very core. For he’s also come with some questions of his own.
“How many of you are in favor of the death penalty?” Everett begins.
“How many of you are opposed?”
“How many are not sure?”
All the rest.
Over the past quarter-century, Everett has emerged as one of the leading voices—and perhaps the least likely—in the national movement to abolish the death penalty. He is 77 years old, with a snow-white beard, neatly trimmed, and a soft but steady voice. His impromptu classroom survey might have affirmed the abolition movement’s long odds, but in recent years several states have in fact repealed capital punishment, New Jersey among them. To date 17 states do not permit executions (most recently, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber announced last November that he would not approve any more executions during his term). Everett is convinced that nine or 10 more states will soon join them—enough, he hopes, to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court, which reinstated capital punishment in 1976, to ban it once and for all.
Everett has been active in a number of abolition groups, and he sits on the board of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (he remains friends with former board member Robert Meeropol, son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, accused spies who were executed in 1953, their case still an iconic emblem of the Cold War). So strong has been Everett’s influence in the movement that each year the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty bestows the Walter Everett Humanitarian Award. He tells the Bucknell students that he opposes the death penalty on multiple grounds: its application (it is inequitably and sometimes mistakenly imposed); its price (capital cases cost far more to prosecute than non-capital cases); and its misperceived benefit (it does not provide solace to the families of murder victims).
“Walter was the first family member of a murder victim who would publicly speak out against the death penalty,” says Renny Cushing, the executive director of Murder Victims’ Families and a former New Hampshire state representative. “You can’t tell somebody you need to forgive the killer. Walt simply explains his journey, and that models it. And he does it with the humility that’s Walter. He’s one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met in my life.”
At Bucknell, Everett tells the students that he still remembers the indifferent response he got from his Drew classmates the day, more than a half-century ago, that he spoke out against capital punishment during a public speaking course taught by Ralph Johnson. “The rest of the class kind of looked around and said, ‘Huh? What’s the big deal?’” he says. Then, Everett’s position was rooted in his faith. Today, it’s more personal, the result of unforeseen events and his uncommon response to them. Taking stock of the course of his life during this period, he calls it “my journey.”
Walt Everett’s journey begins at 8 o’clock in the morning on July 26, 1987, in Petersburg, Va. As the minister of a church in Hartford, Conn., Everett was traveling with members of his congregation to Charlotte, N.C., where they were to build homes with Habitat for Humanity. They’d spent the night in Petersburg, and Everett had just sat down to breakfast at the hotel when he got word to call home. An emergency, he was told.
Four hundred miles away, Everett’s younger son, Wayne, picked up the phone and delivered the news: “Dad, Scott was murdered last night.” Earlier that morning, in an apartment building in Bridgeport, Conn., Everett’s elder son, Scott, 24, had been shot, point-blank, by a 27-year-old drug dealer named Mike Carlucci.
Scott Everett had been born on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, the child of an alcoholic mother and absentee father. He was removed from his home before he was six months old, Walt Everett says, when child welfare officials accused his mother of trying to sell him for a case of beer. Everett and his first wife, Isabel, learned about Scott from Everett’s brother, Arthur, a minister who was working with Native Americans in White River, S.D. Within days they were on a flight to Pierre, the state capital. When they returned home to Connecticut, they brought Scott with them. He was 22 months old.
As a teenager Scott struggled in school, dropped out at 16 and began drinking heavily. But in time he turned his life around, joining AA, getting sober and finding steady work. At 22, Scott moved into his own place in the apartment building in Bridgeport. On a Saturday night in July 1987, Scott went out with friends, arriving home after midnight to find that his apartment had been burglarized. After his friends settled him down, he walked them outside to their car, leaving his keys in his apartment. But when he returned, he found the outside door of the building locked. He knocked, hoping someone would let him in. Around the same time, another tenant was screaming that her apartment had just been burglarized.
In the apartment across the hall, Mike Carlucci heard the commotion. By his own admission, Carlucci was stoned on cocaine and had not slept in at least a week. That night he’d been out drinking with a cousin and a friend.
They planned to drive down to New York City, where the bars stayed open until 5 a.m., and had returned to Carlucci’s apartment to change clothes and restock his stash of drugs. When Carlucci opened the door of his apartment and saw the woman screaming, he went back inside to grab his .38-caliber handgun. Armed, he walked down the hall and heard someone pounding on the door at the end of the hallway. When he opened it, he did not recognize Scott Everett, did not know that Scott was a tenant in the same building. Wielding his gun, he told Scott to leave. Then, for reasons that even Carlucci cannot explain, he raised the gun to Scott’s neck. For a fleeting moment, he considered the consequences of what he was about to do. If I pull the trigger, Carlucci reasoned to himself, this guy is going to die, and I’m going to prison for the rest of my life. And then he pulled the trigger.
Any death of a young person creates unspeakable trauma for the family, Everett tells the Bucknell students. A violent death, he says, “increases the trauma exponentially.”
And so it was that for the next 11 months Everett saw his life spiral downward, seemingly out of his control. He felt despair, rage, depression. His marriage, already on shaky ground, cracked under the strain. Everett prayed to God, beseeching him to show him a way out of the darkness. But Everett discerned no response. He attended a support group meeting with other family members of murder victims—the only people, he figured, who could possibly understand the anguish that consumed him. One night he heard a woman in the group say that anyone who committed murder “should be taken out and shot immediately.” Then he learned that the woman’s son had been killed 14 years earlier. He wondered if that’s what his life would be like for the next 14 years.
“I was ignoring mail. I was not paying attention to people,” Everett tells the students. “My thoughts were elsewhere.”
Eleven months and two weeks after the murder of his son, Everett sat in a courtroom in Bridgeport for Carlucci’s sentencing. Everett had never before set eyes on his son’s killer, who arrived at the courthouse three hours late, having indulged in one last cocaine binge before prison. The judge asked Everett if he wished to make a statement. Everett rose and spoke for 10 minutes, though he doesn’t remember a word of what he said. Then the judge asked Carlucci if he would like to speak. Carlucci stood. Everett tells the Bucknell students that he remembers every word Carlucci uttered.
“I’m sorry I killed Scott Everett. I wish I could bring him back. Obviously, I can’t. These must sound like empty words to the Everetts. I don’t know what else to say. I’m sorry.”
That simple expression of remorse would change the course of Everett’s life. “It was,” he tells the students, “as though at that moment God said, ‘I’ve been asking you to wait. This is what I’ve been asking you to wait for.’”
Two weeks later, at 8 o’clock in the morning on July 26, 1988, exactly one year to the minute after he learned of his son’s murder, Walt Everett sat down to write a letter to Mike Carlucci. Over the course of three pages, Everett recounted the suffering that Scott’s death had inflicted on his family. “The pain,” Everett wrote, “is almost unbearable at times.”
Yet he also thanked Carlucci for the apology he had delivered at his sentencing. And then Everett went further. “I know also that I will not be able to move on with my life unless I can accept your apology,” he wrote. “And so, although words seem so trivial in some ways (yet they are all that we have now), I do accept your apology, and, as hard as these words are to write, I add: I forgive you.”
The Bucknell students sit rapt. The room is pin-drop quiet. Everett pauses a moment, then continues.
His decision to forgive Carlucci, he says, was not meant to ease the guilt that weighed on the soul of his son’s killer. It was more selfish than that. He says he offered forgiveness to save his own life. “You need to feel good enough about yourself in order to forgive,” he says. When he stuck the letter in the mail, he says, “I felt the burden start to lift.”
A few days later, inside Enfield Correctional Institution, Mike Carlucci looked at the return address on the letter that had just arrived, and he cursed. “What the hell is he doing writing to me?” he asked his drug counselor. Carlucci threw the envelope on the counselor’s desk and stormed into the mess hall. After dinner, he returned to see the envelope still there, unopened. The counselor suggested he read the letter. Carlucci refused. Finally he asked the counselor to read it and tell him if there was anything in the letter that he ought to see. The counselor did.
“Mike,” she said afterward, “I really think you ought to read this.”
Two weeks after Everett mailed his letter, he received a one-page response from his son’s killer.
“Mr. Everett I hope this letter finds you in good health, and makes you feel as good as your letter made me feel.”
Carlucci went on to thank Everett, telling him that the letter gave him peace of mind and allowed him to sleep easier at night. In closing, Carlucci wrote:
“Again, let me say how truly sorry I am to you and your family! I hope I will hear from you soon.
“Sincerely, Michael Carlucci.”
Thereafter ensued an exchange of letters between the minister and the murderer, and then one day several months on Everett received a letter asking if he might visit Carlucci in prison. After much soul-searching and with great trepidation, Everett tells the Bucknell students, he agreed. Their first meeting, on Dec. 6, 1988, lasted about an hour and 15 minutes. As Everett prepared to leave, the two men went to shake hands. Somehow that didn’t feel right. They embraced instead.
Two years passed. They continued to correspond. Everett continued to visit Carlucci in prison. By and by Everett came to view Carlucci as a changed man, transformed from the drug-addled street thug that he’d once been. Everett interpreted this transformation as the work of God. The two men found themselves growing close. When Carlucci’s father died while he was in prison, Carlucci received a furlough to attend the funeral. Everett loaned him a suit and, at Carlucci’s request, preached the sermon.
Because prosecutors had reduced the criminal charge against Carlucci from first-degree manslaughter to second-degree manslaughter as part of a plea bargain, he’d been sentenced to a term of just 10 years in prison, with the sentence to be suspended after five years. Everett had found it inconceivable that anyone who took another’s life—utterly without provocation—could receive so tepid a punishment. Yet toward the end of 1990, Carlucci told Everett he was thinking about asking the state parole board to grant him an early release from prison. And then he asked Everett if he would testify on his behalf. Everett did not hesitate to say that he would.
On June 1, 1991, Carlucci was released from prison—largely, he believes, on the strength of Everett’s testimony. He had served just 35 months for killing Scott Everett.
Walt Everett’s journey, it would seem, should end here. It does not, of course, not with his life now inextricably linked with the man who killed his son. Maybe, in some indefinable way, they needed each other.
In fact, Everett tells the Bucknell students, he and Carlucci developed a most unlikely fellowship. They began to make public appearances together—in churches, schools, prisons—Everett to advocate for the abolition of the death penalty, Carlucci to testify to the power of redemption. Carlucci met a woman, Sandie, at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. When they were married a few years later, Everett officiated at their wedding. By then, word of the uncommon bond between Everett and Carlucci had spread to the news media. Everett jokes that at Carlucci’s wedding there were more television cameras than guests. A few years later, when Sandie died of a drug overdose, Carlucci arranged for her funeral, with Everett presiding.
Everett tells the students that since his release from prison Carlucci has stayed sober and worked steadily as a supervisor for a trucking company. “Mike is doing a great job for that company,” Everett says. “He’s also doing a great job for his life. The important thing for me is not only that Mike is a new person, I’m a new person.”
Only 10 minutes remain in the class, time for a few questions. One student asks Everett how he feels about telling the story of his journey over and over. “Healing is a lifelong process,” he replies. “This is part of that process.”
Another student asks whether Everett had any doubts about Carlucci when he was freed from prison. Did he fear that Carlucci might return to a life of drugs and crime? Everett tells them about the day he and Carlucci appeared together on The Today Show, to be interviewed by Matt Lauer.
Toward the end of the segment, Lauer asked Everett if he could ever look at Carlucci and not think about what he had done to his son. Everett tells the students that he’d never been asked that question before, and he’s sure his answer was God-given.
“I can never forget what happened to Scott,” he said. “It has forever changed my life. But when I look at Mike, I don’t see the person who harmed Scott. I see somebody who’s been changed by God, and I celebrate that.”
Then Lauer looked at Carlucci and asked him what he’d learned from Everett. “Unconditional love,” Carlucci said.
End of interview.
The bell rings. A half-dozen students approach Everett, thank him for coming, shake his hand. Some, on their way out, reach for the anti-death penalty brochures that Everett brought with him. Everett leaves the building with instructor Deirdre O’Connor, who says the students will discuss the issues that he raised at a later class. Not until then could Everett know whether the timeless questions he’s posed really struck a chord with the students, whether he’d helped them to make meaning of uncertainty.
A few days later a neuroscience major from Bexley, Ohio, named Bridget O’Donnell wrote about Everett’s appearance in her course journal. O’Donnell grew up in a politically conservative home. Both her parents supported capital punishment. As a member of her high school political club, she took part in debates about the death penalty, arguing strongly in favor. Just two years earlier, as a high school junior, she’d written a research paper defending her position. “Today, however,” she wrote in the journal, “I questioned myself.”
O’Donnell says she left the class wondering whether her support for the death penalty was something she really believed in—“or something I learned to believe in.” And although she has a hard time articulating her change of heart, she is certain that a change has taken place. “I am not pro-death penalty anymore,” she says.
In Walt Everett’s long journey, another small step.