After 26 years working with at-risk teens, can a Philly couple forgive the one who killed their son?

Sultan Ahmad speaks about his son as the Ahmad’s mark the anniversary of their son's Sultan Jihad Ahmad's murder 26 years ago with an annual peace breakfast in his memory for families that have lost loved ones to violence in Philadelphia, PA on April 20, 2018.

Sultan Ahmad can still remember just where he was on April 20, 1992 — working in Mayor Ed Rendell’s administration, meeting with a group of young men who wanted to start a drill team. That’s when two police detectives showed up.

“I was informed that our son was killed in Hunting Park, a 15-year-old killed by a 16-year-old with an 18-year-old accomplice,” Ahmad said. “They escorted me to my house, and when I got home, the block was filled up. The community came out to support us.”

That’s been true ever since: Ahmad and his wife, Harriett, have grieved, unremittingly, the loss of their oldest son, Sultan Jihad Ahmad, but also have turned his name into a rallying cry for community transformation. To that end, they’ve given out, by their count, $350,000 in scholarships, awarded for essays on violence prevention. And they’ve sought to lift up the Hunting Park neighborhood with a foundation created in Sultan’s name that, as of last October, has a permanent home at 19th and Oxford Streets — a handsome, three-story former police station they’ve been renovating to house education and job-training programs, a food pantry, and a community center.

Every year, on the anniversary of Sultan’s death, they hold a Mothers’ Prayer Breakfast for Peace, for women who’ve lost children to violence. It’s a joyous, tearful meeting of a club no one wanted to join.

This year’s breakfast was particularly emotional. It was the first year in the new headquarters, 16 years in the making. But looming over the celebration was a court date the Ahmads had been dreading: a resentencing for their son’s killer, Joseph Chamberlain. (It was originally set for that week, but pushed to July 12 at the Ahmads’ request.)

Chamberlain, after all, was just a teen himself, one of more than 300 juvenile lifers from Philadelphia — and more than 500 statewide — being resentenced in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that automatic life-without-parole for minors is unconstitutional.

In many of those cases, which date back 20, 30, or 40 years, the District Attorney’s Office has not been able to find family members to speak for the victims. Of those who did provide victim-impact statements, many were adamant that the juvenile killers should never be freed.

But the Ahmads have more complicated feelings.

Sultan — whose Philadelphia political credentials include roles in three mayoral administrations and leadership of the Parking Authority — has worked with lifers at Graterford Prison for more than 30 years, even implementing anti-violence programs designed by the incarcerated men.

“I have a foundation of faith that tells me I can’t judge anyone,” he said.

As for Harriett, she doesn’t like to talk about it.

“You’re not going to ask me how I feel about that, are you?” she said, wringing her hands. “I’m ‘twixt and between.”

After all, the fundamental notion underlying their work is that kids are not inherently bad — they just need to be taught to make better decisions.

“When we lost our son, we said, ‘We really have to do something to grab the kids,’ ” Harriett said. “There’s got to be a better way besides picking up a gun and killing somebody. What makes somebody that angry?”

>>READ MORE: One building’s journey from a place of incarceration, to a venue of liberation

To them, it’s all connected: the GED and computer literacy classes, the food pantry, the culinary arts center, the new carpentry program in which every graduate will leave with a certificate and fully loaded tool belt. It’s why they need to raise another $400,000 to fit out the second and third floors for more educational workshops: upholstery, cosmetology, printing, shoe repair.

The master plan is to save this community, one job, one kid at a time.

“We want to create a place young people can see as a safe haven, where they can resolve their conflicts in a nonviolent way,” Sultan said.

Camera icon DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Harriett Ahmad (center), laughs as her husband, Sultan (center background), compliments her. The Ahmads mark the anniversary of the death of their son, Sultan Jihad Ahmad, 26 years ago with an annual peace breakfast in his memory.

‘Like ripping off a scab’

The Sultan Jihad Ahmad Community Foundation is a project rooted in optimism. On April 20 each year, though, it’s a place for remembering those who’ve been lost.

Movita Johnson-Harrell, whose son Charles Andre’ Johnson was shot and killed in 2011, said that’s why she was there. But now, she’s also the head of victim services at the District Attorney’s Office, which has taken fire from families of murder victims alleging poor communication.

“The difficult part is when you have to tell a parent that the person who took their child’s life is up for resentencing,” she said. “It’s like ripping off a scab.”

As she arrived at the prayer breakfast, Harriett came to greet her. Johnson-Harrell brought her in for a hug.

“I’m sorry you have to go through that,” Johnson-Harrell said. “But you’re built for it. You’re built for whatever comes down the pike.”

Harriett shrugged: “It is what it is.”

The room was packed, and women had to squeeze past round tables set close together to get to the brunch buffet. Even these spacious new digs are not large enough for everyone in Philadelphia who’s lost a child to gun violence.

Virginia Parker came in memory of her daughter, Rafeea, murdered in 2009 right in front of Rafeea’s 8-year-old son.

Parker took three buses to get there from her North Philadelphia home.

“It reminds me that I’m not alone,” she said. “There’s always someone going through something.”

Over grits and French toast, eggs and turkey bacon, the women offered solidarity and support.

“I want you to look at each other and say, ‘I got you, sister,'” Juanita Hodge told them. She lost her son, Donald Lovell Booker Jr., 18 years ago.

“Some days,” she said, “it feels like it just happened.”

For these women, the Ahmads are a pillar of strength. Harriett said having them there helps make the anniversary bearable for her, too.

Like Joyce McCants —whose son Sabir was killed in 2006 in a quarrel over a car — many of the women are raising their grandchildren. McCants’ granddaughter was 11 months old when her son was killed.

“She’s developing, and he’s not here to see it,” she said. “I still can’t understand: Why my son?”

Camera icon DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Movita Johnson-Harrell (left) of the District Attorney’s Office; Joel Seay, founder of the Jarell Christopher Seay Love and Laughter Foundation; and Harriett Ahmad  on April 20, 2018.

‘You and your family deserve better’

After the breakfast ended and old friends drifted away, Sultan pulled out an album. Instead of family photos or clippings of sports and academic victories, it’s a diary of loss: meticulously mounted news clippings from his son’s death and what followed. Every year, faithfully, he’s taken out newspaper ads in memory.

“A young man who had a lot of growth — no angel, but a lot of growth.” That’s how Ahmad describes his son: a burgeoning leader, a community-minded young man who never got a chance to show what he could do.

Camera icon FILE PHOTOGRAPH
A Philadelphia Inquirer clipping from 1992 describes the shooting.

In court on Thursday for Chamberlain’s resentencing, Ahmad described the impact of the killing: devastation.

He didn’t express an opinion on the district attorney’s offer of 26 years to life in prison, which would make Chamberlain eligible for parole by October.

“It’s not up to me,” he said. “Up to me is to make a difference. We’re going to continue to try to make a difference.”

He said Chamberlain should pay for what he’s done.

“We will never forget, and we do not intend to forget, a day of unbelievable hurt,” Sultan said. But, he added, “it is hypocritical that we suggest to young people that they resolve their conflicts in nonviolent ways when adults can’t do that, when world leaders can’t do that.”

>>READ MORE: Why are juvenile lifers from Philly getting radically different sentences than those in the rest of Pennsylvania?

Chamberlain’s public defender, Bradley Bridge, did not attempt to defend the shooting, which took place when Sultan Jihad was on his way home from Cooke Middle School. He and Chamberlain had been fighting over a girl when another teen, Kasam Hennix, shot Sultan in the legs, then handed the gun to Chamberlain, who fired into his abdomen and head.

Instead, he pointed to a brutal childhood: Chamberlain’s parents were alcoholics, his home life violent and dysfunctional, his education fragmented as he bounced among nine schools. And Chamberlain spoke of his own transformation, his realization of how he’d gone wrong.

“I remember asking my lawyer if I could say sorry to the family. … I was told, ‘Don’t say nothing, just be quiet,’ ” he said. “I was too ashamed to look, and when I did sneak a glance, the pain I saw in their eyes crushed me to my soul.”

Ultimately, Judge Jeffrey Minehart accepted the agreement, for nine years less than the mandatory minimum under current state law.

“You and your family deserve better. Sultan deserves better,” Chamberlain told them. “I pray now, as I have for 25 years, that you’ll be able to forgive me one day. “