In 1990, David Biro murdered Nancy and Richard Langert (and their unborn child) in their home in WInnetka.
  • Sun-Times Print Collection
  • In 1990, David Biro murdered Nancy and Richard Langert (and their unborn child) in their home in WInnetka.

“Ken” was tried as an adult for a double homicide committed in Pennsylvania when he was 15 years old; he was convicted and sentenced to a mandatory life sentence without parole. Letters to a Lifer is a recent book by Cindy Sanford that tells Ken’s story. The author, coming from a police family, surprised herself by getting to know Ken in prison and questioning the need to punish him forever. Jeanne Bishop of Chicago wrote the forward.

“Did looking beyond the crime and giving Ken a chance mean that she was forgetting the victims?” Bishop wondered. “On this, Sanford raises more questions than she answers—but they are good and important questions.

“While Sanford concedes there must be punishment for what Ken has done, she questions whether making a humble and remorseful young man spend another 50 or 60 years in prison accomplishes anything beyond turning one tragedy into two.”

It happens that Bishop—a lawyer in the office of the Cook County public defender—has just published a book of her own, Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy, and Making Peace With My Sister’s Killer. In it, Bishop wonders the same things. The Ken in her life is David Biro, who in 1990, at the age of 16, broke into the home of Bishop’s pregnant sister, Nancy Langert, and her husband, Richard Langert, and murdered them both.

Bishop writes that 21 years went by before she could speak David Biro’s name. Though a public defender, she opposed a campaign to abolish the practice of trying juveniles as adults and sentencing them to mandatory terms of life without parole. Eventually, she says, she relented on that point as she found a way to forgive Biro and to pray for him—still waiting, however, for him to express remorse. He did not. In September of 2012 she wrote him. “The only thing that could possibly pay for the loss of Nancy, her husband and their baby,” she told Biro, “is this nearly-impossibly thing: that you would make your way home to God.” She said she’d come visit if he wanted—and he did. They’ve met at his prison several times since. She tells me, “One of the things he said to me the other day is ‘The more I get to know you, the sorrier I am for what I did.'”

She believes that if Biro were released he’d pose no danger to anyone. But the case her book makes is not that he should be set free but that society should give him the chance to show that he deserves to be. Throwing away the key is an act of “hubris,” she believes. After all, she said to me, we see in ourselves a capacity for change and redemption. We see it in people we know well, such as our children. “If it’s true for you, it’s true for others,” she reasons, “including people who have done heinous things.”

One reader she failed to persuade is Neil Steinberg. “Bishop lost me toward the end,” he wrote in the Sun-Times, “when she contemplated the release of Biro, and people like him, and coldly speculated why some timid folk oppose sprinkling God’s grace on felons and turning them loose.”

He went on, “Yes, we are too harsh, and make the road to redemption too narrow. People can change, and do. But by the end of Bishop’s book, I was wondering whether the victims deserved a bit more of the compassion she lavishes over the perpetrators.”

I doubt that Steinberg actually sees Bishop’s heart hardening against her own sister and brother-in-law. But the question he raises about Bishop is the same one Bishop raised about Sanford, and it deserves some thought. Does keeping a repentant man in prison forever for a crime he committed as a boy accomplish anything “beyond turning one tragedy into two”? Well, it can be argued that the second tragedy is the proper punishment because it’s the only punishment commensurate with the first tragedy. It isn’t necessary to close our eyes on the repentant prisoner and deny his redemption to believe he should die in prison. When he is young, feral, and psychopathic, he must be locked up to protect society, and it hardly matters what he thinks about it. When he is no longer those things his confinement is simply his punishment, which he has earned and must learn to live with. Redemption is a fine thing, but sometimes it has to be its own reward.

This argument is based on an understanding of crime and punishment that tends to wobble on close contact with repentant criminals, particularly repentant criminals who committed their crimes as children. Cindy Sanford and Jeanne Bishop changed their minds and wrote books about their conversions. “Why does the punishment have to be endless?” Bishop wonders. “You honor the victim by restoring a life to society.”

“The pernicious thing about mandatory sentencing,” she tells me, “is its total lack of curiosity about the perpetrator.” I asked her how today’s Biro, who she believes is no longer a threat to anybody, has changed from the adolescent Biro who killed and then went to school and boasted of it. But she doesn’t know that earlier Biro, and explains no one back in 1990 had any interest in him beyond trying him as an adult.

The mandatory sentencing of juveniles to life without parole was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2012. Writing for a five-to-four majority, Elena Kagan overturned the sentences dished out to 14-year-old boys in Alabama and Arkansas.

A sentencer misses too much if he treats every child as an adult. To recap: Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features—among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him—and from which he cannot usually extricate himself—no matter how brutal or dysfunctional. It neglects the circumstances of the homicide offense, including the extent of his participation in the conduct and the way familial and peer pressures may have affected him. Indeed, it ignores that he might have been charged and convicted of a lesser offense if not for incompetencies associated with youth—for example, his inability to deal with police officers or prosecutors (including on a plea agreement) or his incapacity to assist his own attorneys. . . . And finally, this mandatory punishment disregards the possibility of rehabilitation even when the circumstances most suggest it.

The ruling in this case, Miller v. Alabama, doesn’t forbid judges to sentence juveniles to life without parole. It says they can’t simply thump their gavel, declare the juvenile an adult, and doom them to eternity behind bars because that’s what local law says must be done with adults. There must be a hearing. “A judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty for juveniles,” Kagan wrote. Laws requiring mandatory life without one violate “the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.”

On the strength of Miller v. Alabama, Biro filed a petition to be resentenced. It awaits a ruling, and there are problems. One is that the states disagree on whether to enforce Miller v. Alabama retroactively; the Illinois Supreme Court has yet to decide for this state, and the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to decide for the nation. The local courts could kick the can down the road and wait for word from above.

The other thing is that Biro was sentenced to two mandatory life terms for the murders of the Langerts, but to a discretionary life term for killing their unborn child. A judge could vacate both mandatory terms and let the discretionary life term stand and keep Biro right where he is—in Stateville.

Or perhaps a judge will order the hearing that the Supreme Court says Biro should have had in 1991. Imagine Biro, at the age of 41, listening to testimony intended to reveal the person he was at 17. Some of that testimony might come from Jeanne Bishop. In 1991 she would have testified to the impact of the murders on her family. In 2015 she might testify to that, or she might testify to the impact of time on the murderer. Or she might testify to both.

No one’s asked her to testify to anything yet, she says.

Postscript: Bishop’s book is a short one, and it’s intensely focused on legal and spiritual issues. As a result it doesn’t take either of two tangents that years ago were written about at length in the Reader.

After the murders, the FBI soon got it into its head that they’d been committed by the Irish Republican Army, which had mistakenly murdered the wrong sister: their theory was the IRA intended to kill Jeanne Bishop because they suspected she’d been spying on them for the FBI. Bishop’s interest in Northern Ireland was no secret: she’d been involved in the defense of a former IRA man arrested in New York, and she’d written a few articles for newspapers and law journals on human rights abuses committed by government forces in Northern Ireland. The FBI asked for details on Bishop’s IRA connections that it said would help the bureau protect her life.

This, at least, is what the FBI told Bishop, but she believed the bureau was lying through its teeth. No friend of the IRA, it was simply pumping her for information that would lead it to activists in the U.S. and Ulster. So Bishop refused to offer any names, and the Chicago media were soon reporting that the murders were being investigated as an “act of international terrorism” and that Bishop was refusing to cooperate.

John Conroy told this story in the Reader in “The Irish Connection,” in April 1992. Conroy recounted some of the case’s bizarre turns. Interpol, Scotland Yard, and the Royal Ulster Constabulary were all consulted. The Langerts’ employment—both worked for Gloria Jean’s Coffee Beans—-boosted suspicions of international intrigue. Conroy wrote, “Customs agents had stopped ships in New York Harbor in conjunction with the theory that drugs were somehow involved in connection with coffee beans coming from Colombia.”

None of these measures produced the case’s big break. That came when a local teenager walked into the Winnetka police station and said his friend David Biro had been talking about committing the murders. Biro lived a few blocks from the Langerts, a couple blocks from the police station. He already had a reputation among the police as a misfit. No one had questioned him.

And then in 2005 Bishop received a letter from a local playwright, Douglas Post. He thought she might want to know that City Lit Theater was in rehearsals of his new play, Somebody Foreign, which told the story of a woman lawyer involved in Northern Ireland affairs who’s targeted in an FBI investigation after her sister and brother-in-law are murdered. “This scenario will obviously strike a familiar note with you,” Post went on, “but my play is a work of fiction and not a documentary.” Passages of the play were taken almost word for word from Conroy’s article. Post wondered if Bishop wanted to meet for a cup of coffee.

Bishop wasn’t too dumbfounded to react. By the time all the smoke cleared, the play as performed was about a professor of Middle Eastern studies with an interest in the Palestinians, and any similarity to actual persons or events was now “purely coincidental and unintentional.” An important underwriter withdrew, the Tribune‘s Chris Jones said the play he saw felt “drafted and lawyered to death,” and at the end of its run the the company’s artistic director and entire board of directors resigned. I told the story in a couple of columns that I’ve linked to just above.