SANFORD, N.C. — AS the October sun pierced the lead-glass windows of the Methodist church here, pastor David Banks finished his sermon and called on one of his congregants, who wanted to make a public confession of sin.
The act of contrition that followed was rare even by Southern standards. This, after all, was no ordinary sinner and no ordinary sin. Bill Huggins, the former county prosecutor and a community pillar, rose to acknowledge that, yes, he'd had an affair with another woman, and now stood accused of conspiring with her to kill his wife.
While many congregants already knew the unsavory outlines of the case, Mr. Huggins was now asking for something else: forgiveness for breaking the congregation's trust.
Perhaps remarkably, in the days and weeks that followed, many church members and townspeople have rallied around Huggins. They've been buoyed not only by his wife's determination to forgive him, but also by her decision - since overturned by a judge - to let him back into the house.
Thus is unfolding a tale of love, infidelity, alleged murder plotting, and redemption that may be complicated even by Faulknerian standards. The case presents a rare clash of justice and forgiveness in the heart of the Bible Belt, where the two often contradictory human impulses run particularly deep.
"There's a cultural Christianity in the South that's very powerful," says Glenn Jonas, a religion professor at Campbell University in Dunn, N.C. "And while it can be very judgmental, the other side of that is a powerful ability to forgive. It's the same phenomenon that keeps people listening to Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker" even after acknowledged indiscretions.
No doubt, too, the case has captured attention because of the strangeness of the story line and the notoriety of the main character. Bill Huggins has long been a dominant figure in both Sanford's church life and its civic life.
He's was a standing member of the Kiwanis club and once chaired the Lee County Democratic Party. As the former county prosecutor, he handled all the big murder cases. Though considered shy, Huggins was known for his kindness to even the most hardened criminals whom he went up against.
His wife, Kathy, called "Effie" by everyone here, ran a part-time balloon business that, among things, catered to children's birthday parties. Even the couple's first encounter was unusual: They met years ago after Mr. Huggins responded to a personal ad in "one of those wheeler-dealer auto trade magazines," Ms. Huggins told a local newspaper last year. His was one of 62 responses.
Yet Bill Huggins, according to state prosecutors, was also leading a double life. Four years ago, they say, he began having an affair with a woman named Melissa Davis, whom he'd met at the local Jonesboro United Methodist church. About a year ago, court documents allege, the two began discussing a plan to kill Ms. Huggins, and Ms. Davis claims that Huggins even gave her a gun. (Huggins, who was arrested in August on a solicitation-to-murder charge, has pleaded not guilty. He says the talk was never serious. Ms. Davis, who has cooperated with prosecutors and has a criminal record for passing bad checks, has not been charged in the case.)
After his arrest, state prosecutors wanted to keep Huggins out of Lee County, beyond the reach of both his wife and the witness in the case. But a judge allowed him to stay in the area after posting bond. Then, a day before he was to move into a small Sanford apartment in September, Ms. Huggins pleaded with her husband to return home. He did, and cared for their two small children while Ms. Huggins was away at work.
"I've never seen a child's face light up like their daughter's did when he came back home," says Deborah Gross, a family friend who testified on the Hugginses' behalf. "Kathy wanted this so they could work on their relationship, and she thought they could best do that if Bill was living at the house. She's shocked, but she's not afraid."
But for District Court Judge Ripley Rand, it was too much. Even though the two had been living together for two months, Judge Rand ordered him out, and Huggins moved to a nearby apartment on Nov. 24.
To many outsiders, Kathy Huggins' decision to allow her alleged would-be killer back into the house was bizarre.
But forgiveness remains as much a part of Southern life as condemnation - particularly in Sanford, set amid the pines southwest of Raleigh. The brick downtown may be centered on discount and hardware stores, a few hip antique shops, and a kung fu club, but the town's communal core lies between City Hall and the church. It is a community so devout that the local newspaper doesn't publish on Monday so the staff can have Sunday off.
"This case - where you have not only a man who broke his vows through marital adultery, but contemplated his wife's death, at least in conversation - takes the whole issue of forgiveness to a new plane," says Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
For many locals, it is only right that the power of redemption should win out. Particularly since news of Huggins' church confession swept through town, many residents have rallied around him: A dozen citizens showed up in court recently to vouch for the couple's decision to stay together. "We are nearly all Christians here, and many of us have had trouble understanding what he's done," says Robert Holt, decked out in his Sunday best. "But we also understand that ... you say things you don't mean to say."
Huggins's moment of contrition before the congregation, says Dot Stanley, owner of the Western Auto store, went a long way toward restoring his stature. But he hasn't been easy to forgive. From beneath a swooping bouffant, Ms. Stanley says she "was shocked and hurt" to hear the charges against him. Like most in this town, she's looked to Ms. Huggins - a prim, bespectacled Methodist - for clues on how to judge her wayward husband.
"I've seen them in restaurants several times after the arrest, and they're talking and they look happy: They look like they're in love," she says.
Indeed, Ms. Huggins's closest friends insist she's doing the right thing - and has enough of a social network that she can voice any fears for her life.
Still, not everyone in Sanford is convinced of Mr. Huggins's motives. "If my husband tried to kill me, I'd let him rot in jail," says a woman watching a recent court proceeding.
Some even think his public repentance could have been a ploy to gain favor and make a guilty verdict more difficult. The confession came as North Carolina Deputy Attorney General Jim Coman was seeking the court order barring Huggins from his home.
Ultimately, the residents' forgiveness may run only as deep as the authenticity of Huggins's remorse. So far, he's lost his job and resigned most of his community posts. "[Society] often trivializes forgiveness and separates it from questions of repentance and accountability," says L. Gregory Jones, dean of the Duke University Divinity School, who lectures on forgiveness in Southern culture. "But as far as people have now forgiven [Huggins], it's linked to clear expectations" of reformation.