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Crime victims identify with 'Heaven's Rain'

brooks douglass
Brooks Douglass

NASHVILLE -– A movie about a Baptist preacher's son who survived gunshot wounds from a brutal attack that killed his parents yet forgave their murderer is resonating with audiences not only in churches and theaters but also among victims of violent crime walking similar paths.

Heaven's Rain, a feature film produced and co-written by Brooks Douglass, a crime survivor who went on to pioneer victims' rights legislation as a state senator, made its Tennessee premiere April 5 before a diverse audience of law enforcement, victim advocates and crime survivors. The screening was billed as an early observance of National Crime Victims' Rights Week, sponsored by the U.S. Justice Department April 10-16.

"I hope you don't feel like what you are watching is a crime story," Douglass said in a question-and-answer session after the screening at Friendship Baptist Church in north Nashville. "I think of it as a story about our family. It's a tribute to my parents, and it's mostly a story about forgiveness."

The movie tells the story in vignettes from Douglass' childhood as a son of Southern Baptist missionary parents in Brazil, to Oklahoma, where his father was pastor of Putnam City Baptist Church. Then to the night of Oct. 13, 1979, when 16-year-old Brooks Douglass let two drifters into their home who wound up robbing the family, raping his 12-year-old sister and shooting all four bound family members before leaving them for dead.

Richard and Marilyn Douglass died at the scene. Bleeding and faint, Leslie managed to help untie Brooks, who despite his own wounds got her to the family car and drove them both to a doctor, who in turn got them to a hospital in time to save their lives.

The movie climaxes with an eight-minute scene summarizing Douglass' 90-minute prison meeting in 1995 with murderer Glenn Ake, during which Douglass let go of hate and anger bottled up for years and forgave the triggerman who changed his life.

Douglass said forgiving Ake "absolutely" helped him move forward in healing. "It was a life-changing moment that I did not expect to happen," he said.

Douglass said the film is not intended to pass judgment about whether others in similar situations should do the same. "What the story is, is this is what I needed," he said. "If you can glean something from that, we all process these things differently, but we believe this is an important part."

The film also profiles Douglass' career in the Oklahoma State Senate, where he sponsored 24 bills establishing rights for crime victims. In one scene from the statehouse floor, Douglass' character describes a mother who was billed $500 for a medical exam after her daughter's rape.

"We had to pay that for Leslie, and we were never reimbursed," Douglass said. "The car that I drove to the doctor's house that night, who took us to the hospital, it was impounded by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation as evidence. We had to pay $150 to get the car back. It was a different world and a different system. Today hopefully you don't have to sell your home and all your belongings to pay the medical costs and the funeral expenses."

Another law Douglass fought for was the right of victims to make an impact statement as part of their attacker's sentencing.

Ake and his partner, Steven Hatch, both originally received death sentences. Hatch was executed but Ake's sentence was overturned when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the trial court erred by not providing him with a psychiatrist to assist with his insanity defense.

Douglass said Ake was lucid enough after his arrest to give a 40-page account of a spree that included a total of four murders. After learning the Douglass children had survived, Ake and Hatch had intended to return to kill them in the hospital. Learning they had security, the duo headed instead into Colorado, where another intended victim got them drunk and called police after they passed out.

Ake's second trial wasn't until seven years after the crime.

"I had been in the weight room," Douglass described his appearance at the second trial. "I was trying to move on, and I think that made a difference in the mind of the jury. I didn't look any worse for the wear."

When he testified the first time, he had lost 43 pounds in the hospital due to his injuries. "So when I got up on the stand three or four months later, it made a difference," he said. "I looked like I had been through something. Seven years later, I didn't, and so they gave him life sentences."

Douglass encouraged fellow victim-rights advocates not to underestimate their influence to change legal systems that too often overlook rights of the victim.

"A group like this can have an enormous impact," Douglass told the audience. "If you get a group like this to walk into a legislator's office, it's a groundswell. I mean they respond."

Douglass said he would like to return to Nashville. "This is how we are distributing this movie right now, by doing these kinds of events in your church or victims' rights organization, wherever you think there's a chance to show it," he said.

He encouraged individuals interested in hosting a showing to visit the movie's website,

Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.

Published April 16, 2011

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