By ALBERT MCKEON Telegraph Staff Writer
The murder trial of Steven Spader hardly seems like the occasion to consider the religious themes of redemption and forgiveness.
Sentenced to life in prison for using a machete to slay a woman and seriously injure her daughter, Spader received a judicial rebuke that summarized the feelings of many.
“Suffice it to say, you belong in a cage. And you should stay in that cage for the rest of your pointless life,” Judge Gillian Abramson told Spader at the conclusion of his trial Tuesday.
Comments posted to online news stories about the trial spare no vitriol. Many readers regret Spader couldn’t have received a death sentence; others condemn him to hell.
But remarks by Spader’s mother early this week – “We love our son. God loves our son.” – allowed several local religious leaders to offer the belief that, no matter how heinous the crime, the promise of spiritual cleansing exists.
As with several other religious figures interviewed after the trial, the Rev. David Robinson agreed with Spader’s mother.
“God loves us all,” said Robinson, rector of Church of Our Saviour in Milford. “God is almost like a human parent, and he loves a child no matter what.”
Justice needed to be served for the murder of Kimberly Cates and attempted murder of her young daughter, Jaimie, said Robinson and other religious figures. But they said wishing for a punishment beyond life in prison isn’t what God wants.
“Our call as people of faith is to be people of justice as well as people of compassion,” Robinson said.
The Rev. Linda Hey, interim pastor of Pilgrim Congregational Church in Nashua, agreed: “God embraces us in all that we do. That includes the mistakes and the horrible, evil things that can fill our hearts. God knows all about that. That’s why he sent us Jesus Christ.”
In the early morning hours of Oct. 4, 2009, Spader and three other teenagers broke into the Cateses’ Mont Vernon home with the intent to burglarize and kill anyone inside.
After just about an hour of deliberation Tuesday – Spader’s 19th birthday – a jury found him guilty of murder, attempted murder and other felony crimes. An accomplice, Christopher Gribble, faces similar charges in a trial scheduled for next year, and two other teens who participated in the home invasion, Quinn Glover and William Marks, cut plea deals in exchange for their testimony.
“A crime like this takes many victims,” Hey said. “Of course, the most unjustified part of this is the life that was taken.”
But the parents of Spader, Gribble, Glover and Marks have also suffered and are socially ostracized for their sons’ crimes, Hey said. “They’re victims in that they didn’t go out and have their sons do this,” she said.
Hey and other religious leaders said it is understandably difficult for most observers to have compassion for Spader and his accomplices. Spader’s smug demeanor at trial and the explicit recounting of how he harmed Kimberly and Jaimie Cates particularly make it difficult to consider forgiving him, they said.
“My heart is grieved not only for the Cates family but also for the boys who perpetrated this crime,” said Mike Sacco, pastor of First Baptist Church in Amherst.
People “have a hard time facing incredible evil,” Sacco said. Thus, “It’s easy to move it into another corner” and not consider Spader and the others worthy of compassion, he said.
But there is a Christian message that can be found in the tragedy, Sacco said.
“In the faith community, our message is to offer help to people who are hurting. There is a message of hope, that there is more than just hurt in this world. There is a God who loves us,” he said.
Sacco added: “My heart is just aching over what this community is going through. But if we don’t have that hope, then we’re really lost.”
Spader wasn’t eligible for the death penalty; that sentence can be applied to six types of murder, including killing a police officer and murdering for hire. Republican state Rep. William O’Brien of Mont Vernon has proposed a bill that would add home invasion to the list of exceptions for the death penalty; it failed in the past legislative session. He plans to introduce it again.
Sister Maureen Sullivan, a theology professor at Saint Anselm College, opposes capital punishment.
“(A common) first response is that this is not a human being who committed this crime and we should take him out,” Sullivan said. “Our hearts hurt when someone innocent suffers.”
But taking Spader’s life is not what God wants, Sullivan said.
“We don’t have a right to take another person’s life,” she said. “I do think he should be in prison forever.”
Killers such as Spader have demonstrated they should not be in society, she said. At 19, life in prison without the chance of parole is a valid option, she said.
Sullivan recently attended a talk given by Sister Helen Prejean, a leading opponent of the death penalty who was profiled in the movie “Dead Man Walking.”
As portrayed by Susan Sarandon, Prejean tried to halt the execution of a convicted killer, played by Sean Penn. Prejean also convinced the killer to accept responsibility for killing a boy and raping a girl.
In prison, Spader may recognize the severity of his actions, take responsibility and seek forgiveness, Sullivan said.
“Is he aware of God? Probably not,” Sullivan said. “He’s preventing us from seeing God in him because of his actions.”
But if God created something as expansive as the universe, then he left something of himself in every individual, including Spader, Sullivan said.
“The possibility of redemption is there,” she said.
© 2010, Telegraph Publishing Company, Nashua, New Hampshire