Illinois retroactively bans mandatory life sentences for youths convicted of murder

March 20, 2014 (CHICAGO)

The Illinois Supreme Court followed the spirit of the United States Supreme Court's decision last year banning the mandatory punishment and making that retroactive. And that means about 100 people now in state prisons have a hope of freedom.

It's both heartening and scary to Julie Anderson, whose son was convicted for being part of the 1995 gang-related murder of 13-year-olds Helena Martin and Carrie Hovel when he was 15 years old.

"For the first time in 19 years he's had a glimmer of hope that possibly he could at least get a chance to one day walk out of prison," Anderson said.

Eric Anderson is now 34 and spends his time in the Menard Correctional Center, 362 miles south of Chicago, repairing televisions and painting. His mother says he is completely reformed. She says the ruling allows her family to gingerly think that maybe Eric can eventually come home.

"He is remorseful, he's rehabilitated, he's matured, like all of us do as we grow older," Anderson said.

The redemptive quality of the ruling is not lost on the Winnetka family of Nancy Bishop-Langert and her husband Richard, who were murdered in a condominium in 1990.

But it is a nightmare to relive that Nancy was three-and-a-half months pregnant when 17-year-old New Trier High School student David Biro shot the couple in the basement in a "thrill kill."

"I put him away, it was the only way I really could cope with the fact my daughter was gone, and the baby. And for 23 of those years I never thought of him at all. And now he is back in my life, bigger than ever," said Joyce Bishop.

Nancy's sister has campaigned on behalf victims of crime.

"These families are going to be completely re-traumatized and I don't know how you do a sentencing hearing over again when it's been that long," Jennifer Bishop said.

The ruling came in part as a response to Northwestern Law School's efforts on behalf of those convicted of murder as children.

"This is a time to relive things that were difficult for everyone," said Shobha L. Mahadev, NU Children and Family Justice Center. "For a lot of these young people they may not have had the best circumstances at the time of their youth and that's exactly what led to the commission of these crimes."

The Illinois Supreme Court decision was unanimous and it reiterates that life sentences with no parole for juvenile murderers can still be handed down. It's just that a trial court must make the call, not a law that mandates that sentence.

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