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Letter of forgiveness moves Caroline court

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Grace Donnelly and her husband, Caleb, had thousands of dollars of belongings stolen from their Caroline Pines home in 2011, but instead of seeking restitution, Grace wrote a letter forgiving three men involved in the break-in. / Photo by Peter Cihelka

It had more sentimental value to Grace and Caleb Donnelly than anything else in the world—besides the Caroline County couple’s wedding rings.

It was a Cartier love bracelet that she bought in her hometown of Manilla, the capital of the Philippines.

She couldn’t really afford it, but Grace wanted Caleb, who served in the Marines, to have something that represented her love for him.

The $9,500 bracelet had an engraved message: “You will always be in my heart wherever you go. I love you so much Caleb. Grace.”

In a 2008 photo, Grace Donnelly wears a necklace that was one of the items stolen from their Caroline Pines home in Caroline County. Her husband Caleb wore a Cartier Love bracelet bought for him by Grace. None of the stolen items were recovered. (PETER CIHELKA / THE FREE LANCE-STAR)

“I had that engraved to remind my husband that I will always love him and that I am the last thing he should worry about while he is deployed in Iraq,” she said. “That was a piece of me that I want him to have with him all the time, to give him motivation to come home unharmed.”

But that bracelet was stolen in the summer of 2011 when their home and other residences in the Caroline Pines subdivision in Ruther Glen were burglarized.

Three men and a juvenile faced nearly 60 charges, which included counts of grand larceny, breaking and entering and conspiracy.

Caroline residents Carlnealius M. Dandridge, 20, Debaunte M. Johnson, 21, and Lamont C. Smith, 20, pleaded guilty to several charges in Caroline County Circuit Court. They were given jail time and ordered to pay restitution to the victims.

Grace and Caleb Donnelly were entitled to receive more than $15,000 in restitution, but Grace told Commonwealth’s Attorney Tony Spencer that she didn’t want it.

Instead, she asked that she be able to write a letter to the defendants.

And she did.

Each defendant received a similar, but individual, letter. The defendants, the attorneys and even the judge were deeply moved by Grace’s words.

Here’s an excerpt from one letter:

“I do not wish to receive any reimbursement, but I want you to hear what I have to say.

We are not rich, we have debts to pay and we certainly do need that money, but we don’t want to add to your burden. We’d rather see you succeed later on and not worry about what you’re supposed to pay off I do want to tell you this though Before you do anything and know that it will hurt or cause any pain to someone else, do not do it. Always choose to do the right thing. Be the strong person that you ought to be. Life is too precious to be wasting time harming people.

Despite of what you guys did, I have already forgiven you with or without an apology Life isn’t that bad when you do what is right. I will be praying for you.”

Grace, 32, said she thought a lot about the three men who broke into her home.

“What’s lost is lost and no amount of money can replace it,” she said. “I just really felt bad about those kids. I thought maybe if I put myself out there and try to touch their hearts enough, they will change.”

After the first hearing, she said she couldn’t stop crying in the courtroom.

She later talked to Johnson on the phone and after their conversation and his apology, she said they both were crying.

Spencer, who has practiced criminal law for 23 years, said he has never came across anyone as forgiving and truly Christian as Grace.

“After having thousands of dollars of jewelry stolen, she did not want restitution, but was concerned instead with the welfare of those who stole it from her,” he said.

She did not attend Dandridge’s hearing earlier this week, she said, because it was too much emotionally.

Even touched by this case was Judge J. Howe Brown, who told the defendant he didn’t deserve to be forgiven by such a kind woman.

Dandridge’s father, who works for Hanover County Public Schools, testified as a character witness for his son.

He told Judge Brown that when his son was 18 his behavior caused the family to kick him out of the house, which is also in Caroline Pines.

Dandridge was living in the family’s shed in the backyard then, and that’s when the burglaries occurred, his father said.

Just before sentencing, Judge Brown became emotional and told Dandridge’s father that he understood his pain.

The judge told the defendant’s father that when his own son was 18, he started acting up and he had to take some tough love action with him. After his son turned 21, Judge Brown said, the young man came back and thanked him.

“I want you to have that same experience with your son,” Brown

said to the father. Then he told Dandridge, “If [Grace Donnelly] can forgive you, then we should, too.”

Brown suspended 28 years of his 33-year sentence and ordered him to serve up to five years in prison in a youth offender program.

Portsia Smith: 540/374-5419