Dr Jitmoud hugging Trelford in court.
The air inside the court was sombre, thick with tension. Trey Relford, the accused, sat in the dock, clad in bright orange prison garb. Relford shifted uneasily in his seat, anxiety written all over his face. Looming before him was the real possibility of dying in the electric chair. The thought weighed heavily on his mind, heavier than the metal chains buckled around his feet. Relford was charged with the murder of Salahuddin Jitmoud, 22, a pizza delivery driver described as “gentle, generous and shy”, on the night of April 19, 2015.
Now Judge Kimberly Bunnell announced Relford guilty of robbery, murder and tampering with evidence. Relford turned towards his family and friends seated at the back, looking for support. Then he turned towards the father of the deceased, Dr Abdul-Munim Sombat Jitmoud and his family across the courtroom. “I’m sorry for what happened that day,” Relford said, his voice full of remorse as he wiped his tears on the collar of his shirt.
Can you forgive the man who killed your own son? What happened next was unscripted, unprecedented. Dr Jitmoud rose from his seat and stepped forward to the accused to offer him some tissue which Relford took. “I am not angry with you,” Dr Jitmoud spoke slowly, his Thai accent discernible. “I’m angry at the devil who misguided you to do such a crime . . . I feel so sad for you, that you find yourself in this situation . . . Again, I’m not angry with you.” And then Dr Jitmoud uttered the three magic words: “I forgive you.” Dr Jitmoud hugged him tightly as Relford wept. The judge broke into sobs and ordered a break.
Were it not for a video that had gone viral, I would not have heard of Dr Jitmoud. Truth is stranger than fiction. “I told Relford to seek good friends when he gets out of jail,” says Dr Jitmoud. “My family and I could not stand the thought of having to bear witness to Relford’s death in an electric chair. . . Forgiveness is the greatest gift of charity in Islam,” says the retired school principal of seven Islamic schools in the United States for 31 years. The family’s forgiveness spared Relford the death penalty.
Salahuddin’s murder did not leave Dr Jitmoud bitter or broken. “I broke all protocols,” said Dr Jitmoud. “I was not supposed to make eye contact with the accused and I did. I was not supposed to talk to him directly but I did. I was a school principal.” At that moment, to Dr Jitmoud, the man who killed his son was like a student who got himself in trouble, who came to see him at his office, who needed to be given a second chance.
Dr Jitmoud grew up as a farm boy in Central Thailand. The seeds for his leaning towards kindness and compassion were grown early on, preparing him for the tragedy he would face later as a father. At age eight, Jitmoud’s family had 10 water buffaloes. The young boy’s job was to look after them. One day, to their dismay, the family discovered that all the buffaloes were stolen. Soon after, someone broke into the family’s store of rice harvest and stole all they had.
To Jitmoud’s surprise, his 83-year-old grandmother prayed for the thieves. “May Allah increase rizq (bounty) for the thieves, let them be well and wealthy.” The boy was puzzled. “Towāng, why are you praying for them? They just robbed us of everything we had.”
“When they are wealthy, they won’t need to steal anymore,” explained his grandmother. His upbringing, I realised, was the secret to Dr Jitmoud’s forgiving and compassionate nature.
“Forgiveness comes naturally to me,” Dr Jitmoud told my husband and me. Vengefulness and compassion do not sit well together; they are polar opposites to one another. To become a highly compassionate person, I learnt, requires a different mindset altogether.