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Juveniles with life sentences eligible for new hearings, court rules

David Biro was 16 years old when he shot killed Richard Nancy Langert. | Illinois Department Corrections

David Biro was 16 years old when he shot and killed Richard and Nancy Langert. | Illinois Department of Corrections

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Updated: March 20, 2014 8:59PM



Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins says she long ago forgave David Biro, who was a teenager in 1990 when he shot her pregnant sister and brother-in-law to death at the couple’s Winnetka home.

But that does not mean Biro should ever be released from prison, said Bishop-Jenkins, who has been a high-profile advocate for murder victim’s families in the years since her sister’s death.

To her dismay, Biro’s release from prison is now a possibility.

The State Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Biro and about 80 other convicted murders – sentenced to mandatory life terms for crimes committed when they were under the age of 18 – can re-argue their sentences in court.

That means some of the convicted murderers could argue for reduced sentences and eventually gain release.

The court’s finding builds on a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court case that declared mandatory life sentences issued to children a “cruel and unusual” form of punishment and thus unconstitutional.

Left undecided at that time was whether the ruling applied to old cases.

The unanimous Illinois Supreme Court opinion — written by Justice Charles E. Freeman — said that in Illinois, at least, the high court’s ruling does in fact apply to old cases.

Freeman wrote that while juveniles may still be sentenced to life in prison, a life sentence cannot be mandatory.

The decision has frustrated Bishop-Jenkins and other advocates for victims’ families, many who sat through difficult court hearings years ago. Now families will have to go back to court to face convicted murderers – many who are now middle aged or older – and relive a painful chapter from the past.

“Yes, I forgave him. I’m a Christian,” said Bishop-Jenkins, who says she has met with Biro and generally believes in the idea of redemption. “But there are some broken people who can’t safely function among us. My sister’s killer is one of them.”

Biro was 16 years old when he shot and killed Richard and Nancy Langert.

Juvenile justice advocates caution that children are more capable of rehabilitation than adults because they are not as mentally and emotionally developed – a point noted by both the state and U.S. Supreme courts.

“Our society, our legal system and the highest court in the county believe that redemption has value,” said Shobha Mahadev, a lawyer for the Illinois Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Children. “Particularly young people have an immense capacity to change and become rehabilitated.”

Mahadev said she was aware that some families could be upset by future sentencing hearings.

“We’re mindful of the fact that it’s going to be difficult,” Mahadev said. “But I think many of them – and I represent several of them – are eager to demonstrate that they are different people than they were when they were teenagers.”

Bishop-Jenkins predicted the hearings will only traumatize families again, while reducing the sentences for few.

A “handful may deserve some sentencing relief — and no doubt there are a few,” Bishop-Jenkins said. “The vast majority of these offenders will be resentenced to life without parole.”

Email: bslodysko@suntimes.com

Twitter: @BrianSlodysko



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