FOR MORE than a decade, Lamont Hatton watched his brother's killer, William Little - who spent 10 years in prison for the 1989 murder - walking around their South Philadelphia neighborhood, unarmed, unafraid and free.
Hatton watched Little cut hair at the Jazz U Up barbershop at 16th and Tasker, and mentor young people there in the evenings, respected after his stint in prison for murder as a community hero for speaking out against guns and violence.
And Hatton wondered: "Why is this man alive when my brother is dead?"
For years, Hatton planned to avenge the murder of his brother, Terrence Brice.
But Charles Hodge, Hatton's close friend since childhood, who cut hair at Jazz U Up alongside Little, urged Hatton to consider the alternative: forgiveness.
On and on, a battle between the street code of a life for a life and the Christian teachings of mercy and redemption raged within Hatton - until last month, when his better angels finally won.
Hatton entered the barbershop on that winter day, walked straight to Little, looked him in the eye and said, "I forgive you."
At that moment, both men's lives changed forever.
Death for disrespect
Back in the 1980s, Little and Hatton and Hodge, now all in their 40s, were teenagers, running the streets with different crews around 20th and Tasker in South Philly.
"We called it 'The Ozone,' " Hatton said with a smile recently, relaxing with Little and Hodge and reminiscing about back in the day.
"People used to show off their cars, their clothes, their girls, their jewelry," Hatton said. "It was a fashion show."
Little said that show was financed by the drug trade. Everyone was an outlaw and there was no sheriff in town. Guns were a given. Fatalities were inevitable.
Little said that life was all about selling crack cocaine and using the money to buy clothes and ride around in late-model Nissan Maximas and Chevy Berettas.
Little favored Gap fashions, Gucci sneakers and Cazal glasses. No one expected to live long. Everyone expected to dress well.
There was a thin, volatile line between respect and disrespect. Crossing that line could be fatal - and the street code of respect did not include respect for human life.
To this day, Little doesn't know who disrespected whom on March 18, 1989, in the men's room of the St. Charles Roller Rink on Christian Street near 20th.
"Maybe it was a false sense of bravado," Little said, "like somebody saying, 'I'm a tough guy. I represent this block.'
"All of us grew up together, but we hung out on different corners," he explained of the groups who warred that night. "Same schools. Same basketball courts. People get into altercations because they're in each other's company a lot, and somebody disrespects somebody. That's why a lot of times in revengeful shootings, it's somebody you know."
Guns were drawn in the roller rink men's room that night, but nobody fired.
When the two groups of teens - Little's friends from 20th and Tasker, and Terrence Brice and his pals from 17th and Dickinson - emerged, tempers seemed to have cooled. Brice and his group left the rink.
But when Little's group walked outside, they were met with gunfire from across the street.
Little pulled out his .357 Magnum and returned fire. He hit Brice, wounding him fatally.
"It was like, 'Boom! Boom!' And then everybody was running," Little recalled.
To kill or forgive?
In the days before the police caught up to him, Little remembers walking through his South Philly drug territory, armed, believing he was going to die, and determined to take his enemies with him.
"My mentality at the time was either kill me or I'll kill you - I don't care," Little said.
At his nonjury trial, Little testified that he shot Brice in self-defense. The judge found him guilty of third-degree murder.
Little served 10 years in prison, where he heard through the grapevine that Brice's brother wanted revenge.
He didn't know Hatton - not even what he looked like.
So when Little got out in 1999 and returned to South Philly, Hatton was able to covertly stalk him, even walking into the Jazz U Up barbershop to talk to Hodge while Little cut hair a few feet away, unaware that the man who wanted to kill him was close enough to do so.
Stalking his brother's killer, though, Hatton saw that Little was a changed man, dedicated to saving young men from choosing the guns-and-drugs path that would lead them only to prison or death on the streets.
He watched Little run after-school mentoring sessions for teens at Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center on Cecil B. Moore Avenue near 22nd Street in North Philadelphia, and in five barbershops across the city.
He saw Little lead hard-core poetry slams that dramatized life-changing choices with in-your-face intensity.
Hatton grew increasingly troubled about the choice he had to make: kill Little or forgive him.
Whenever Hatton went into the barbershop, he talked to Hodge about the unbearable tension weighing on his mind.
Peace in redemption
Recently, Hatton sat side by side with the man he forgave for killing his brother and with Hodge, discussing the remarkable spiritual journey the three men have been on together.
"This brother stopped me from doing crazy stuff plenty of days," Hatton said of Hodge.
"With blessings from God, I needed some peace," Hatton said. "I prayed to have closure and to find a way to forgive this brother [Little]. I was getting tired of seeing him and having a hatred for him.
"And let me be sincere about it," Hatton continued. "God did this. He got tired of seeing me suffering. He got tired of me hunting Will down and knowing all his whereabouts. That's crazy."
Hodge smiled compassionately. "Crazy that you had to live like that," he said.
"I lived like that for so many years since Will came home," Hatton said. "Until the Lord put it in my heart to forgive him."
Hatton, who spent several years in prison himself for aggravated assault, said: "I remember thinking, 'I'm no angel. People forgave me. Why can't I forgive Will?' So I did. It lifted the burden I had inside. I can be around this brother now. I don't have no hatred, and that's what I prayed on."
When Hatton finally walked into Jazz U Up and told Little, "I forgive you," it took Little a moment to realize what was happening.
Then, he realized, thanked Hatton and apologized.
He told Hatton that the dedication to his self-published autobiography, The Life and Times of Will Little, reads: "To the memory of Terrence Brice, who lost his life in the realm of my ignorance."
Hatton saw that Little was speaking from the heart.
"We were young," Little told him. "We were lost."
Hatton is 48 now. Little is 43. Hodge, the peacemaker, is 45. Those teenage years on the corners of South Philly, when they would jump from rooftop to rooftop, three stories above Federal Street, just for the death-defying exhilaration of it, are so long ago.
"We'd be on the streets, selling drugs, carrying guns, but that wasn't our purpose in life," Little said, while Hatton and Hodge listened intently.
"Now, as men, we can talk about redemption and forgiveness instead of revenge. We can serve our community. That is our purpose in life. Now, as men, we can live in peace."