By Steve Mills and Duaa Eldeib, Chicago Tribune
CHICAGO—The Illinois Supreme Court ruled Thursday that inmates serving mandatory life sentences for murders they committed as juveniles will receive new sentencing hearings, giving about 100 convicted killers a chance at freedom.
The inmates, some of whom were as young as 14 at the time of the murders, will now be allowed to present evidence — including the circumstances of their upbringing and their rehabilitative efforts in prison — to obtain reduced sentences and possible freedom. Prosecutors can try to persuade judges to re-impose the life sentences.
Some of the state’s most notorious murderers will be among the inmates given new sentencing hearings: David Biro, who was 16 in 1990 when he forced a pregnant woman and her husband into the basement of their Winnetka home and shot them as they pleaded for their lives, and Christopher Churchill, who was 16 in 1998 when he used a hammer to kill his half-brother, the man’s girlfriend and her three children in southern Illinois.
Thursday’s decision comes two years after the U.S. Supreme Court found that mandatory life sentences violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Its ruling built on an increasing body of scientific and social research that showed that the brains of teens were less developed than those of adults, giving them less impulse control, and that youths were susceptible to peer pressure and other forces that could lead them to commit such heinous crimes without considering their consequences.
Attorneys and advocates praised the ruling, saying that a mandatory life sentence failed to take into account the circumstances of a youth’s life and took away discretion from judges to decide the appropriate prison term.
But the sentencing hearings no doubt will reopen emotional wounds for the families of victims. The issue has divided the family of Nancy Langert, who along with husband Richard were Biro’s victims.
Jeanne Bishop, who has been meeting with Biro in prison for months to try to understand what drove him to commit such brutal murders and to determine if he is indeed remorseful, said she has not yet decided if Biro should ever be released.
“I’m still finding that out,” said Bishop, who viewed Thursday’s ruling as just and appropriate because she believes everyone, even killers like Biro, deserve an opportunity to show they can live again in society.
Her sister, Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, said she was stunned by the court’s decision. A victims rights advocate, she said other victims’ families were finding the news hard to accept as well. She said it will be difficult to have fair sentencing hearings for crimes that occurred decades ago. Most of the inmates were convicted in the 1980s and 1990s.
“It will be re-traumatizing to victims families,” she said. “And most of these guys will get life again anyway.”
A spokeswoman for Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez made much the same point. The office was analyzing the ruling and considering asking the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in again.
“As always, we are concerned that the effect of new sentencing hearings will cause painful wounds for many victims and their families to be re-opened as these victims are forced to relive the pain and anguish of the horrific crimes perpetrated against them,” said the spokeswoman, Sally Daly.
With the ruling, Illinois joins such states as Iowa, Massachusetts and Texas in deciding the 2012 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court applies to prisoners who committed crimes years before the ruling. Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Louisiana are among the states that have refused.
All of the approximately 100 inmates in Illinois will get new sentencing hearings, but it wasn’t clear how soon those would take place.
The sentencings were mandatory for the juveniles because of their convictions on multiple murders or other factors.
Some of the inmates will point to the fact that they played lesser roles in the murders and were convicted under laws that held them accountable. Others insist they have uncovered convincing evidence that proves they are innocent and have been trying all along to win their freedom by unraveling their convictions.
Many are the products of poverty and abuse, the kind of information that could not be considered when they were originally sentenced but will be in the new hearings. Many others have turned their lives around while in prison, according to their lawyers, and hope to show a judge that they have been rehabilitated.
Most of the convictions came in the 1980s and 1990s. At least one of the 100 inmates is a woman, Jacqueline Montanez, who was 15 and a gang member when she shot and killed two rivals with an accomplice, prosecutors said at the time.
The court’s unanimous ruling came in the case of Adolfo Davis, who had been 14 for two months when in October 1990 two older gang members brought him along on what he believed was going to be a robbery, according to his attorneys. Two men were shot and killed, but Davis never fired his gun, they said.
One of his attorneys, Patricia Soung, said that Davis’ difficult upbringing is crucial to understanding why he participated in the crime, while his development in prison will be key to showing he can be rehabilitated.
At the time, Davis was in eighth grade. His father was absent and his mother was a drug addict, so he lived with his grandmother, according to his attorneys. Since he went to prison, Davis has renounced his gang membership, gotten an education, writes poetry and, at 37, helps steer youngsters away from gang life, the attorneys said.
Shobha Mahadev, the project director for the Illinois Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Children and a professor at the Northwestern University School of Law, called the court’s decision appropriate, especially considering that Cook County is home to the nation’s first juvenile court.
“None of us is the same person we were when we were 15,” Mahadev said. “That’s something that many of them are eager to show.”
In downstate Macon County, State’s Attorney Jay Scott defended the life sentences handed down to two inmates who were each convicted of three murders. He said he would prepare for the new sentencings once they are scheduled.
“I think the original sentences … were more than appropriate given the nature of the crimes,” he said. “But it’s the ruling, and we have to abide by it.”
When the sentencing hearings take place, prosecutors and defense attorneys will be challenged. Since judges had no choice about the mandatory sentences, there was no need to research defendants’ background in the kind of depth usually done for sentencings. That work will have to begin anew, but with the passage of time, records have likely been lost and witnesses died.
Some attorneys already have retained psychologists and others to prepare for the sentencing hearings, said Lawrence Wojcik, an attorney at the firm DLA Piper who co-authored a brief for a coalition of advocacy groups.
“Some of these individuals have been in prison for 20 years. They will have a large body of information for the court to consider,” Wojcik said. “But you’re also not going to have witnesses — the mother who was on crack may be dead, the grandma holding the family together might have passed away.”
Complicating matters further, the case could still find its way back to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Michele Deitch, a juvenile justice expert and professor at the University of Texas, said the split among the states in how they are handling the ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court could prompt the justices to correct what she called an “intolerable disparity.”
“I don’t think that the Constitution can really stand such an extreme disparity,” she said.
Photo: Adam Jones via Wikimedia commons