A Killing, A Life Sentence and My Change of Heart...by Jeanne Bishop
I have been paying close attention to the changes coming since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down any mandatory life sentences for juveniles who kill. A teenager killed my sister...He killed her dream, too.
She wanted to be a mom. My sister Nancy married young. She was overjoyed when she got pregnant at age 25. That dream died three months later, when she and her husband walked through the front door of their home and found their killer waiting for them. He was a 16-year-old with a history of violence. He wanted to see what it was like to kill someone. He found out when he broke in and shot Nancy, Richard and their unborn baby and left them to die on a cold basement floor.
When the killer was arrested, details emerged that turned my stomach. He had joked about murdering my family members, even attended their funeral. When he was convicted of the murders, he was remorseless. When he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, I was glad.
After sentencing, my mother turned to me in the courtroom and said, “We’ll never see him again.” I was glad of that, too. I wanted to wipe him off my hands like dirt. I never spoke his name. I wanted his name to die and Nancy’s to live.
When a coalition of people (including law professors such as Bernardine Dohrn and Randolph Stone whose advocacy on behalf of children I have always admired) launched efforts to abolish juvenile life sentences, I was appalled. The last thing I wanted was to attend parole hearings year after year, to beg bureaucrats not to release the person who had slaughtered my loved ones.
So I publicly fought any change in the sentence. I told myself that fight was not just for my family, but for other family members of loved ones murdered by juveniles who would be affected. I was like Saul early in the Book of Acts, the righteous one with a zeal for justice, before he was struck down and humbled and given a new name: Paul.
Then, I repented…My road to Damascus moment didn’t come in a blinding light or a voice from heaven. The voice that changed my heart was that of a Mississippi-born, Vietnam veteran, Yale-educated Southern Baptist pastor and academic named Randall O’Brien.
O’Brien told me something true - that Nancy’s killer and I are both children of God, equally beloved and equally fallen. O’Brien reminded me of Jesus’ example on the cross of what to do with those who have harmed us: pray for them.
I had never prayed for the person who killed my loved ones; I had never even uttered his name. I say it now: David Biro. I began praying for him in the only place I could: the garden where Nancy and Richard and their baby are buried. I dropped to my knees and asked God for something I never could have imagined, that Nancy’s killer get well enough to get out someday. I don’t know that he will; he is not there yet. But I do know that no one, including him, is beyond the forgiveness and redemption and purpose of God.
My two young sons taught me that. We were talking about loving your neighbor as yourself. Stephen asked, “What about the person who killed Aunt Nancy?”
Brendan replied, “We can’t love what he did. But we have to love him, because God made him for a purpose.”
Brendan is right. God made each of the juveniles serving life sentences for a purpose. I can no longer support a sentence that says never.
Repenting privately would be cowardice, since my past support for locking up some juveniles forever has been so public. So when lawmakers in my state of Illinois consider bills next month that would abolish juvenile life sentences, I will be there to speak in favor of the mercy of a second chance.
Dr. Marcus Borg, a biblical and Jesus scholar, notes that the roots of the Greek word for “repentance” mean “to go beyond the mind that you have.”
My mind is changed; my heart is remade, and a new task lies ahead.
Jeanne Bishop is the sister of Nancy Bishop Langert, who, along with her husband and their unborn child, was shot to death by a juvenile. Since the murder of her family members, Jeanne Bishop has been an advocate for gun violence prevention, forgiveness and abolition of the death penalty. She is a criminal defense attorney in Chicago.
Reflection Story Note: Forgiveness is not a rational process…it does not come from the mind, rather it comes from the heart. When the heart is made new by Christ’s love, the mind must follow. Perhaps we all need to let our heart’s teach us to “go beyond the mind we have” and see life with new eyes. Forgiveness is a choice of the heart.