On the day a California jury sentenced 25-year-old Irving Ramirez to die, Dionne Wilson went out to a bar to celebrate. “We had a major party,” she told me. Ramirez had shot and killed her husband, Dan, in 2005 — the first Alameda County cop to be murdered in the line of duty in almost 40 years. The district attorney tried the case himself; when the death sentence came down two years later, Wilson felt satisfied she could finally move on with her life.
But the next day, a feeling of letdown began to sink in. “I was supposed to wake up in the morning with this newfound freedom,” Wilson said. “And I didn’t. And I kept waiting and waiting and waiting. And it never came.” Wilson had pushed for the death penalty, although she understood Ramirez wouldn’t be executed anytime soon. “Everybody in California knows that when you get on death row you’re more likely to die of old age,” she said. “Everyone knows that. That really wasn’t the issue.” The sentence was supposed to be the thing that healed her. “It was supposed to be my justice.” Instead, she felt lost and angry.
“That’s when my whole worldview started to unravel,” Wilson said. More than vengeance, she realized she wanted answers. She wanted to know why people do such harm to others. And she needed desperately for something positive to come from her loss.
Wilson embarked on an “investigative journey,” exploring Buddhism and studying forgiveness. Then, on the fifth anniversary of her husband’s death, she sat down to finish a letter she had started many times. “Dear Irving,” she wrote. “I thought that this day should be the one that I put all my fears and expectations aside and just keep writing so I can tell you a few things.” Wilson told Ramirez that she did not hate him anymore. She had despised him for a long time, but now that hatred was hurting her more than it could ever hurt him. So she forgave him. “I’m pretty confident that you didn’t envision your life turning out this way,” she wrote. And then she told Ramirez she was sorry: “I deeply regret my part in making people see you as less than human.”
Wilson tracked down Ramirez’s attorney, who was stunned — she had never seen such a thing in all her years representing people on death row. She later helped Wilson arrange a visit to the women’s prison in Chowchilla. The experience was life altering, awakening her to the abuse, neglect, and trauma so common among people behind bars. Today, Wilson is a full-time criminal justice reformer, practicing restorative justice and continuing her prison visits. Although it’s a life she never imagined, it is also the positive outcome she craved: a chance to disrupt cycles of violence by helping others address their own trauma. “I want to heal that,” she says. “Before people twist off and kill someone’s husband, their brother, their son.”
Ramirez never wrote back to Wilson — his lawyers likely cautioned against it. But curled up on her couch in mid-September alongside her two dogs, she spoke about him with compassion. She feels particular empathy for his mother, who had brought him as a child from El Salvador to escape civil war. Wilson never looked her way during the trial, she was so focused on Ramirez. But now, with an adult son of her own, she imagines how much his mother ;must suffer at the fear of her child being killed by the state. “She has already lost Irving to death row,” she said. “For her pain to be magnified in my name — I can’t live with that.”