‘You are totally forgiven’
Bill and Mary Walker gave a great gift to themselves and the woman who drove over and killed their son.
The Enquirer/Kimball Perry
- Instead of spewing hatred at the woman who drove over and killed his son, Bill Walker did something unusual. He forgave her.
Bill Walker took a deep breath and, in a voice cracking with grief, told the woman who killed his son what he thought of her.
There was no rage or anger or name-calling. The courtroom was completely still as Walker forgave Lauren Balint, 23, and wished her well.
“It almost brought me to tears,” Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Melba Marsh said.
“You are totally forgiven. I hope you get married and have a good, long life,” Walker, a Bellefontaine, Ohio, pastor at Quest Community Church, told Balint.
Balint raised her hands to her face and wept. “From the bottom of my heart, I forgive you. I wish Chris hadn’t been out there that night because it affected your life as well,” Walker said.
Walker’s powerful comments were rare. Many victims’ families spew hatred, outrage and animosity at those responsible for their loved one’s deaths.
It is the kind of moment for which the justice system, one that runs on cold facts and rational arguments based on the law, isn’t often prepared. Marsh admitted she had been undecided on what sentence to impose on Balint, who earlier pleaded no contest to and was convicted of the crime, until after Walker spoke.
Forgiveness, Walker believed, was the greatest gift he could give Balint. “There was no reason for two lives to be lost,” he said. “We already lost one. We can’t change what happened to Chris.”
Much of what happened to 21-year-old Christopher Walker was his fault, his father admits. But he wishes his son hadn’t died alone, that Balint tried to help.
Christopher Walker was eight days past his 21st birthday when the University of Cincinnati architecture student went for a walk, as he did often, to explore Cincinnati’s unique architecture. He was also drinking. At about 2 a.m. Feb. 24, 2013, he stumbled onto northbound Interstate 71, walking along the highway.
His father suspects his son was returning from an abandoned railway tunnel under William Howard Taft Road. They think Christopher Walker believed he was on Reading Road, and not on I-71, when he started walking.
That’s when Balint, from Cuyahoga Falls, struck Christopher Walker. She panicked and, at the urging of some in her car, drove away, leaving Walker to die.
“It was a very bad decision. It was very overwhelming,” Balint said in court last week. “I should have stopped. I think about it all the time.”
Christopher Walker was dead at the scene. His DNA, blood, hair, saliva and clothing fibers were found on the car.
“Chris made some mistakes that night,” his father said. “It’s so ironic, because he promised he’d never drink and drive, and he was killed walking because he didn’t want to hurt anyone else.”
Balint, who has been in counseling – juggling that with college and jobs as a day care worker and restaurant hostess – since the incident, wasn’t charged with his death, partly because the coroner found that he was intoxicated when struck. She was charged with failing to stop after the incident and faced three years in prison.
Balint wouldn’t comment for this story. Her veteran defense attorney, though, said she was nervous about facing Walker’s parents.
“Up until us going in (court), she asked, ‘How do you think the family will react?'” attorney Bryan Perkins said. “I didn’t expect the outpouring of emotions” from Balint and Bill and Mary Walker.
“I sympathize with him as a father,” he said. “I’ve never seen it at that magnitude. It got me emotional, for sure.”
Forgiveness, said Joe Zalot, associate professor of religion and pastoral studies at Mount St. Joseph University, has power, benefiting both the forgiver and the one being forgiven.
“Forgiveness says a lot about the person who is doing the forgiving,” Zalot said. “There’s something very freeing, very liberating about letting that go. You can hang onto that, but it’s going to take a physical toll and an emotional toll on you.”
He’s right, said Caleb Adler, a doctor and professor in UC’s department of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience.
Holding on to anger increases stress and can cause hormonal changes that result in higher blood pressure and poor heart health. “If you can say ‘I forgive’ – and really mean it – you’re probably going to feel the benefits,” Adler said.
Forgiveness could also help others in your life. “When people forgive other people, that creates an environment where people are less stressed,” Adler added. “It would be healthy for everyone.”
Marsh placed Balint on probation for two years and suspended her driver’s license for one year.
For Bill Walker, though, it wasn’t about punishment. It was about peace.
“It’s not for me to have her carry this guilt for the rest of her life,” Walker said. “She seemed like a neat young lady, so I hope it helps.” ■