How would you respond to a prosecutor's question about a fair punishment for a young man
who fell asleep at the wheel and caused the death of your much beloved spouse as well as
causing a serious spinal cord injury to your 12 year-old son?
I was truly touched on how Jason Hotchkiss handled this dilemma. I found his story in the
May 2011 Guidepost under the title "The Road to Healing." I found it so powerful and
beautiful that I thought it deserved to be shared. I will be much surprised, if reading this
story, you will not be amazed by not only his "Solomon" wisdom, but by the incredible
compassion he exhibits as well. If you also get the Guideposts and have already read his
story, I think you will enjoy it a second time as I have. And by writing about it, I think
it will forever be something I will be glad to recall if ever I have to render a judgment of
In picking people for the May cover, I would have chosen Jason and Cass Hotchkiss canoeing
down the Animas River in Colorado on their wedding day. He was in his tux and she in her
wedding dress and veil. A rather unusal sight one must admit, and it seems this couple were
truly made for each other.
Both were single parents but from very different backgrounds. She had only known poverty
and despair on the Indian reservation where she was born. But somehow -after a truly horrible
beginning that left her without parents when she was only six years old, she would not only
survive but eventually thrive. Her alcoholic father had been found frozen to death when she
was three. And then the unthinkable- her mother abandoned her and five other siblings when
she was only six. But even at such a tender age, she dug deep into something in her and was
able to care for them until their plight was discovered after a week.
The next 12 years were difficult as Cass bounced around among family members and
institutions. Drinking became her coping mechanism to ease the hurt she felt. But when she was
finally able to abandon this destructive behavior and livestyle, she was able to get a college
education. And that's when the true, caring Cass emerged. She decided she would devote
her life to helping her people on the reservation.
Jason, a Connecticut Yankee, probably grew up in a white neighborhood - enjoying all the
opportunities that this almost always guaranteed for most. Much later the two single parents
would meet in Colorado where he was working as a builder. After they met and fell in love
and married, Cass was able to convince him to start a nonprofit organization training Natives
to be wilderness guides.
Life was good for them and their four children until that one November evening when Cass was
returning home after dropping Jason off at the airport. In the car with her were three of their
four children when a young driver who had fallen asleep at the wheel slammed head-on into
Cass's car on a stretch of highway on tribal land. The crash killed Cass and left Jason's 12
year-old son from a previous marriage unable to walk. Amada and Dante were also injured.
After the funeral, the prosecutor called Jason in saying that he realized how devastating this
was for him and the family -but since there was no evidence of alcohol or drugs, he thought
two years in jail was the best they could hope for. He asked Jason what he thought of this
Jason asked for a week to think it over. Presently, his thoughts were wholly centered on the
kids and especially Noah how had only recently come home from the hospital. Was he really
in any frame of mind to make a right recommendation for the punishment that should be meted
out to 19 year-old Joseph Montoya? It would have been so much easier to make this decision
if Joseph had been drunk or on drugs, but as it happened, he had just driven his girlfriend to
work and was tired from working a graveyard shift. He was also taking medicine for a
cold at the time.
He began to agonize about what would be appropriate punishment thinking "How could I even
begin to consider questions of justice? It was just too painful. What lesson was there to learn
from Cass's death other than that life is profoundly unfair? She was only 30 and her whole life
lay ahead of her. Two years in jail? Five? Ten? It wouldn't bring her back, wouldn't heal
Noah's spinal-cord injury. How could any decision I made, any ruling in a court of law,
Have you, the reader, given any thought to what you might have thought as a fair punishment
yet? What would you tell the prosecutor? What should Jason tell the prosecutor? To
help him get some answers, he spent time in a sweat lodge with his friends Chip, a minister
and Shannon, a member of the Lakota tribe. Chip advised him to turn this issue over to God.
And though hesitant about this advice, he would later pray "God, I can't carry this burden any
longer. Please take it from me. Let me know you are still close."
During sleep that night, Jason had dreams which at first appeared hazy. But slowly a picture
began to emerge and then his eyes opened up wide suddenly. Only 4:30 A.M.-still dark but
for the first time since the accident he felt at peace and a picture was taking shape which would
help him move forward. Finally Jason had his answers.
When he and his friends Chip and Shannon met with the tribal prosecutor and the chief of police,
he again was asked if he agreed with the two year sentence. Jason answered no, but that he had
a different idea. Okay, said the prosecutor - let's hear it.
"First I want Joseph to do a year of volunteer work with groups that serve Native youth...And I
want him to get counseling. He has to be hurting too. Then he needs to buy some sheep - eight
of them ....and deliver them to Cass's grandmother in New Mexico. (Cass had planned to do this
for her grandmother before she died). One more thing...At the end, I'd like him to make a meal
for my family and friends and for us to eat it together on the banks of Animas. (Breaking bread,
is the most traditional way of showing reconciliation)."
The prosecutor was quite surprised with Jason's "sentence" and in the corner they could see their
big hardened chief of police with tears in his eyes. I suspect that most of us have tears in our
eyes as well. This man was unbelievably kind and caring. How many of us would have been so?
Jason at that moment said he felt warmth surging through him like the release from the most incredible
sweat imaginable. He said " I had forgiven Joseph. The rest was up to God."