(By Julie Meachem) When Lillian Smith Family Violence Foundation Board member Jim Buffington was a 12 year-old boy, his music minister father hired hit men to kill his wife and children.
After attempting to gain information on the whereabouts of the kids, the hit man killed his mom but decided not to look for Jim and his brothers. For years his father maintained his innocence, even after being sentenced to death for capital murder. It wasn’t until his original conviction was overturned and he was due to be paroled for time served on the lesser murder charge, that Jim heard the truth from his father.
“I killed her and she deserved it!” Jim recalled hearing those words and swore that day to see his father remain in prison for the rest of his life. Jim’s father had lied to him for over 12 years and he was done listening.
He didn’t have anything to do with his father until he had a son, and realized that he wanted to break the abusive cycle his dad had started. So with questions in hand, Jim visited him in the Huntsville prison. He had questions about the murder, about what caused it, and about how the man he loved could turn into the murder he knew. As his father approached, Jim could tell something was different. His dad, who never had apologized in his life, said “I’m sorry.” He said he found and accepted Christ. This murderer was telling him that he was a believer. Jim didn’t accept it; and neither did his brothers. They all harbored such anger toward him; they couldn’t believe it was anything more than a jail house conversion. Jim, however, continued to visit his father about once a month and, during the process, learned his mother’s murder came down to poor choices. His father began to hang out with the wrong friends, going out for happy hour drinks, coming home drunk, and spending all their money. As things progressed, he resented his wife and kids until he had an affair with a secretary in his business.
His wife was willing to forgive everything until that one argument when he hit her. At that moment, she did what she should, and left. His life continued to spiral downhill. He blamed her and eventually he said the words “I wish she was dead.” It wasn’t long after that he was sitting at a bar hiring his workers to make that happen and adding his children to the contract. If he had made other choices, Jim’s life could have been very different.
During the time Jim’s dad was in the Ellis Unit of Huntsville prison, he was able to personally witness to over 300 of the inmates there. He had started a men’s chorus in the unit. When he died, the warden insisted his funeral should be in their “Chapel of Life,” the first funeral performed at the prison chapel. While Jim and his brothers were scared and uncomfortable, each of the inmates shared their experience with the man that Jim knew as his father and a murderer. Jim and his brothers realized the transformation in their father. By the end of the service, they were able to forgive him.
After two criminal trials, the kids just wanted an ending, and didn’t have enough money to buy a new plot. They decided to bury his father in the plot next to his mother, which they had purchased in the years they thought he was innocent. They heard from the angry media and others who were willing to share their opinion, but not open their wallets to help purchase a different plot. But it was finally over; or so Jim thought.
Years later, through the Texas Victim Offender Mediation program, he was able to meet, Charles, the man who actually shot his mother. He had a mediator when he came face to face with his mother’s actual murderer. Charles said that he had accepted Christ, although it took Jim a while to believe him. He said the killers were trying to find out where the boys were, but his mother never told them, and it saved Jim’s life. He wanted to strangle the old man. He had to get up and leave, but he came back. He couldn’t forgive him at that time. Jim finally understood the meaning of choice. He chose to not be bound by unmerciful chains and, a few weeks later, he wrote Charles a letter of forgiveness.
Even though these men accepted Christ, they still faced the consequences of their actions. The horrible tragedy ended up being turned for good… for him, his brothers and even his father and Charles, and the inmates they helped.
Jim is now serving weekly in a prison ministry bringing victims of crimes into prisons to tell their stories and witness to the inmates. He realizes that he’s no different from the men there, but just like his father, they had made some bad choices. He visits the prison and encourages the inmates to tell others about Christ.