A spiritual journey to keep hate at bay

David Biro at Pontiac Correctional Center in Pontiac, Ill., in 2013 (Newscom/Chicago Tribune/Nancy Stone)
David Biro at Pontiac Correctional Center in Pontiac, Ill., in 2013 (Newscom/Chicago Tribune/Nancy Stone)

by Robert Little

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By Jeanne Bishop
Published by Westminster John Knox Press, $16

"I don't want to hate anyone." So said Jeanne Bishop at the Winnetka, Ill., police station the night her pregnant sister and her sister's husband were murdered in 1990. The following 25 years sorely tested that desire. In Change of Heart, Bishop, a Chicago public defender working in the juvenile courts, recounts her spiritual journey to keep hate at bay and her political journey to oppose juvenile life without parole in the American justice system.

David Biro, just short of his 17th birthday, killed Nancy and Richard Langert. The murder at the Langert home had no motive. He later bragged to a classmate: "They deserved to die. They were annoying."

He had broken into their house with burglary tools and waited until they got home. Richard begged Biro not to kill him and his wife before being shot at point-blank range. Biro shot Nancy in her pregnant abdomen and fled.

Nancy crawled to attempt to get help, leaving a trail of blood from and then back to Richard where, with her last movements, she traced with her own blood on the basement floor a heart and the letter U: "Love you."

Before he was apprehended, Biro went to the funeral of his victims with a cool detachment.

Bishop attended Biro's trial, where he strode defiantly into the courtroom: "His gait was unhurried, a shambling walk; his expression was almost a sneer."

After conviction, Bishop swore to never mention his name again.

How, then, did she come to meet with Biro in prison? How did she become an activist for ending juvenile life without parole, a path that divided her from many of her friends and family?

Change of Heart tells of a spiritual journey about the "mythical state of 'closure' " and a political journey through the American prison system.

Sentencing juveniles to life without parole receives a short overview in Bishop's retelling. The Supreme Court struck down as cruel and unusual mandatory juvenile life without parole in Miller v. Alabama in 2012.

The court is set to revisit the question soon in the case of Henry Montgomery, who has been imprisoned since first incarcerated at age 17 in 1963. Is it at all possible for a court to conclude that it cannot conceive of the possibility that a juvenile can be rehabilitated? Life without parole necessarily requires a finding that no future parole board could possibly recommend a juvenile's release.

As Bishop returns to investigate Biro, she discovers his high school counselor thought him the scariest kid she'd ever dealt with, a remorseless sociopath. This squared with Bishop's observations at the trial, where Biro looked unrepentant as he put on a ludicrous defense in the face of his obvious guilt.

How can a Christian offer forgiveness? And having done so, and having prayed for him, how can she seek reconciliation with such a person?

Bishop takes us on a quick tour through the Bible, where some of the great heroes of Scripture have taken another's life. Moses killed an Egyptian slave master. David saw to the death of Uriah. Saul, later to be called Paul, countenanced the death of early Christians before his conversion.

The God of Scripture did not throw away murderers, but instead kept them in the story to show what happened to them next: Moses, the leader of the Jews; David, the great warrior king and poet; Paul, the evangelist of Christianity.

This realization brings Bishop through forgiveness, to reconciliation, to opposition to juvenile life without parole, to a dramatic prison encounter with her sister's killer.

Bishop writes in a personable way, but readers should be warned the book recounts many gruesome killings.

[Robert Little is a lawyer and writer in California.]

A version of this story appeared in the Nov 6-19, 2015 print issue under the headline: A spiritual journey to keep hate at bay.

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