The following article originally appeared in Inside Journal, Prison Fellowship’s quarterly publication for men and women behind bars. To learn more about Inside Journal, click here.
Ron Hammer first started using drugs while he was in the U.S. Marine Corps. “It was a stressful time and drugs were an escape,” he recalls. After his military service, Ron married his childhood sweetheart, Sharon, and opened an auto repair shop in Tennessee. While his business thrived, his drug habit also escalated—to the point of addiction.
One day Ron made plans to rob a man to buy about $5,000 worth of crystal meth. It was November 14, 1986, and Phillip Robinson was working at his father’s grocery store across town. Phillip’s father, Wayne, had gone to the bank to deposit checks and would be returning with $9,000 in cash.
When Wayne came back to the grocery store, Ron and an accomplice approached with guns drawn. Wayne tried to pry the gun out of Ron’s hands, but it fired, loud enough for Phillip to hear. Ron quickly took the money and ran. When Phillip rushed outside to see what was happening, he discovered that his father had been shot. An ambulance took Wayne to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Ron and his accomplice were arrested for the murder of Wayne Robinson. He posted bail and tried to escape by using drugs, just like he had in the military. Ron even attempted to end his life by shooting himself with a rifle—but the rifle moved when it fired. He was left with severe powder burns on his arms, yet his life remained intact. Undeterred, Ron attempted suicide twice more by crashing his plane and his car. Miraculously, he survived both times.
“I was trying to make a deal with God, ‘Get me out of this, take it away,’” Ron recalls. As a car salesman, he was used to cutting deals. This time, however, Ron couldn’t negotiate himself out of the consequences for his actions. Even though he insisted that he was innocent at trial, Ron was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Stuck behind bars, Ron used smuggled prescription drugs and bucked up to everybody with a bad reputation. “I had nothing to lose,” he says.
Surrendering to God
Meanwhile, Phillip was grieving the loss of his father. Despite Ron’s conviction, Phillip struggled with thoughts of vengeance. “As a Christian I knew I needed to forgive Ron, but the fact that these men had not owned responsibility for the crime kept me stuck,” he says.
Eight years after the murder, Phillip was weary from resisting forgiveness, so he prayed. “I told God, ‘If you want me and Ron to be side by side in heaven forever, that’s O.K. I don’t like the idea, but I surrender to that,’” Phillip recalls. After his prayer, he felt a release and didn’t struggle with anger like he had before.
Ron’s defenses began to crumble too. By 1996, he got sober and accepted Christ. But becoming a Christian didn’t instantly solve all of his problems. He still had recurring nightmares about the murder. Plus, his wife grew tired of visiting him in prison year after year, so the couple divorced, and Sharon remarried.
“Being alone was taking a toll,” Sharon recalls.
Worst of all was Ron’s guilt over taking a man’s life. He prayed for years before he finally heard a voice: You still haven’t confessed to the Robinson family.
An Unlikely Friendship
Desperate to be set free from his guilt, Ron wrote a letter of confession and sent it to Wayne’s widow, Delores. After 21 years of denying the truth, Ron admitted he was the one who had pulled the trigger.
The letter was unsettling for Delores and Phillip. They had believed Ron’s accomplice killed Wayne. However Phillip, at that time a new pastor, felt compassion for Ron.
“I wrote back and thanked him for his courage. I said that as a Christ follower I have been forgiven, so in turn I can forgive him,” he says.
When Ron read Phillip’s letter, he bawled. “I didn’t realize I wanted Phillip’s forgiveness until I received it,” Ron recalls. From that day forward, Ron was a changed man. His nightmares stopped, and he felt less animosity toward gang members with whom he formerly had conflicts with. “After I received Phillip’s forgiveness, I forgave them,” he says.
Hungry to learn about Jesus, Ron sent Phillip more letters, asking him about the Bible. Soon, through letters, Phillip was mentoring the man who had killed his father. Phillip says that his friendship with Ron is evidence of God at work. “You don’t do that, you don’t pray for people who killed your family,” he says. “It’s extraordinary—a work of God.”
Spreading the Word
In 2014, Delores and Phillip spoke on behalf of Ron at his first parole hearing, explaining that they had forgiven Ron and it was time to move on. Ron was required to undergo a psychological evaluation and attend a second hearing before he was deemed eligible for parole.
Last year Ron was released from prison. Soon after, Phillip visited Ron, and they greeted each other with an embrace. The men have since shared the story of their friendship at churches and conferences. Sharon divorced her second husband and remarried Ron in October. “Honestly, he’s the love of my life,” she says. Currently, Ron and Phillip are writing a book together about the power of forgiveness.