Restorative Justice
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bullet Video on Restorative Justice featuring Lisa Rea
bullet Victim Offender Dialogue resources from the Federal Office for Victims of Crime (OVC)
bulletWonderful documentary film about murder, forgiveness, and the genocide in Rwanda,
bullet Inspirational story of Victim-Offender dialogue
bullet Restorative sends news of a model program in Colorado
bullet Theater at Dominican University brings victims and offender dialogue
bullet The Chicago Sun-Times columnist Carol Marin writes about Governor Ryan and we contribute ideas about Restorative Justice
bulletThe Justice and Reconciliation Project's (JRP) online magazine for Spring 2007 -- An Interview with Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins on Restorative Justice
bullet The Chicago Tribune Magazine Cover Story "To Forgive Divine?"
bullet Medill reports on Cook County Victim Impact Panels for young offenders
bulletOn Grief and Forgiveness from the Pew Forum on Religion and the Death Penalty
bulletPlease send us stories of examples of Restorative Justice in philosophy and practice
bulletRead our Restorative Justice proposals to the Long Term Prisoner Study Committee of the Illinois General Assembly
bullet An essay on the Navajo View of Justice - truly Restorative Justice in PDF
bulletThe Top Ten Misconceptions about Forgiveness from Azim Khamisa
bullet US prisons full, but crime, cost to taxpayers soar - Is Restorative Justice the solution?

LINKS to other website stories on Restorative Justice

bullet Why Restorative Justice Programs are Thriving in Missouri

What is Restorative Justice?

The topic is too large and complex for any explanation that would suffice here (google it and take a look around), but basically it is a different approach entirely to criminal justice that is based on tribal models going back to indigenous New Zealand, and other tribal cultures. It treats criminal behavior as a problem that the whole community needs to address. They would come together, often in circles - the victim, the offender, their families, community leaders, and work to solve the problem with a focus on restoring however possible the losses to the victim. The offender has to take full responsibility, and devote whatever time needed to healing the wound they have caused -  that is often a process that takes a while.

Restorative Justice is all about healing the victims.

It generally has come to be practiced in three ways:

1. Victim-Offender Facilitated Dialogue
2. Family Circles
3. Family Group larger discussions involving members of the community as well

"RJ" is hard to talk about with murder victims family members, who often prefer the term Transformative Justice, since you cannot restore to them what has been lost. Property crimes are most often places where mainstream criminal justice professionals feel most comfortable using the RJ approach.

But increasingly, violent crime is seen as being approached best by a philosophy that does not waste human life, even that of an offender, but one that focuses on doing whatever can be done to help the victims and their families move to a place of maximum possible healing. Its hard, but it can and does happen.

The reason that IllinoisVictims.Org cares about supporting discussions about better ways to bring RJ principles into the Illinois Criminal Justice system, is because we believe more of the focus has to be on healing the victim.

In the current system, immense resources are expended on the offenders but many different agencies and individuals at every step of the process. Almost none, from beginning to end, are expended on the victim.

We invite further dialogue wherever possible about ways to bring RJ principles into every aspect of what we do.  Send us your thoughts and anecdotes on issues of Restorative Justice.


In March 2008 the state of Colorado became the first U.S. state to mandate that judges offer accused young offenders the legal option to voluntarily participate in processes like restorative conferences. 
This article (part two of two) by Joshua Wachtel covers several Colorado programs that are using restorative practices with youth in schools and youth justice settings and includes interviews with  practitioners and administrators. 
To read the article, please go to: 



Read Pioneer Press coverage of the March 2008 event

'Dead Man Walking' author joins panel

March 12, 2008


There are few issues as controversial as the death penalty. Dominican University is addressing that topic March 18 through a staged reading of "Dead Man Walking" by Tim Robbins and a post-play discussion designed to offer a balanced perspective and involve the audience.

The post-show panel will include Sister Helen Prejean, whose story formed the basis for a best selling book and an award-winning Tim Robbins movie also called "Dead Man Walking." In 1982, Prejean served as a spiritual advisor to a death row inmate in Louisiana's Angola Prison. She attempted to prevent his execution and, when her efforts were unsuccessful, walked with him to the electric chair. Despite Prejean being an anti-death penalty advocate, the issue is addressed from both sides in the book, movie and play.

Bill Jenkins of Northfield, assistant professor and technical director and designer for Dominican's theater department, will play the part of a death penalty attorney in the staged reading and participate on the panel.

"My wife and I are close friends of Sister Helen and have been working with her as anti-death penalty advocates for many years," Jenkins said. "When Sister Helen told us that she had a staged version of the movie written, we thought this would be great to have at Dominican."

Close to home
Jenkins brings a unique perspective to his role in the show because he is the father of a murder victim. "My son was shot and killed in 1997," Jenkins said. "I have been an ardent opponent of the death penalty ever since, and working as an activist ever since."

"I had always had a philosophical and faith-based opposition to the death penalty growing up. My parents had always been opposed to it," he said. His beliefs were tested when his son William was killed while working at a fast food restaurant. "There was no question of guilt here," Jenkins said. They knew who committed the crime.

Jenkins learned from the chief prosecutor that it was a capital offense, punishable by death. "I truly felt that the way to respond to this violence in my life was not with violence," he said. He asked the prosecutor not to seek the death penalty. The perpetrator received life in prison without parole.

The staged reading will be directed by Krista Hansen, artistic director of the Theatre Arts Lab Series for the Performing Arts Center and an assistant professor at Dominican.

Hearing the story
Nineteen actors will play over 30 roles in the reading. They include Dominican students, faculty and staff members as well as three community members. "We're doing a staged reading version so people can really listen to that story," Hansen said. "We hope to bring awareness about the death penalty and the many sides of that issue to the forefront so that we can have a discussion about it."

Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins of Northfield is arranging the panel discussion. The wife of Bill Jenkins, Bishop-Jenkins lost a sister, brother-in-law and the couple's baby to murder, but she remains a staunch anti-death penalty advocate. She is one of the founding board members of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights.

"Nationally, the way that all of these performances of 'Dead Man Walking' at colleges have worked is to invite conversation to happen as a result of the play," Bishop-Jenkins said. Among the panelists will be Gary Gauger, an exonerated death row inmate. "He spent several years on death row for killing his parents, which he did not do," Bishop-Jenkins said. "We want to try to always have the inmate perspective and the victim perspective." One or two death penalty expert lawyers will be present in the audience.

"The spirit of these talk-backs is never about preaching against the death penalty. It's really about dialogue -- conversation from many perspectives," Bishop-Jenkins said.



Interview from the Justice and Reconciliation Project with Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins

Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins is a victim-survivor of violent crime who lives in Illinois. Her sister, Nancy Bishop Langert, her brother in-law, Richard Langert, and their unborn child were murdered in Winnetka, Illinois in 1990. The killer was 16 years old. Jennifer has been working in the violence prevention field as a victims’ advocate ever since the crime. She works to prevent gun violence nationally and actively supports efforts to end the death penalty in the U.S. Jennifer became a board member of JRP in 2006. She fully supports restorative justice.

The interview~

JRP: Jennifer, thanks for being with us. After the violent death of your sister and her family, what led you to do the things you have done nationally in fighting crime?

JBJ: My sister Nancy was a beautiful, talented and joyous woman of 25 when she and her beloved husband Richard found out they were expecting their first child. It was the happiest time of their lives. But one night after celebrating my father’s birthday, when they returned to their home, they faced a killer who had broken into their home with only one motive – a thrill kill – he wanted to see what it would feel like to shoot someone. After watching her husband shot point blank in the back of the head with a .357 magnum, and then have the gun turned on her, my sister, Nancy, begged for the life of her unborn child. The killer shot her directly in her abdomen, destroying her baby, and mortally wounding her, and then he fled. She had 20 or so minutes in her last moments of her life to lie there alone, bleeding to death, her baby dead within her, her husband dead beside her, at just 25 of years of age, dying alone. And in those final moments, she left us a message in the blood – a heart and a U – “love you” – before she died.

I was completely changed by that – totally transformed not only by the violence of the crime, but the power of her final words. Her last word on life was love. And I know now what that was about – that love is the more important thing in the world. I have tried to live every moment since that time to honor that – to honor my sister and to help prevent other such tragedies.

JRP: What issues have you been most drawn to and why?

JBJ: Actually I have been drawn to several areas of activism in the ensuing years since her murder – one has been opposing the death penalty, which they wanted to give my sister’s killer. But I knew more killing and more bloodshed was not the solution to this problem. The three life sentences without parole he received were good sentences for this crime, and they allowed for our family to not have to spend the rest of our lives fighting this man in courts and parole hearings. We wanted to focus instead on prevention of these kinds of tragedies.

So we also became involved with gun violence prevention. The easy access of kids and criminals to guns in this nation has made this a very dangerous place to live. No one should have to live in fear, and yet many Americans do, every day, because of the proliferation of easily obtainable and extremely powerful weapons.

I have become very involved with crime prevention programs and intervention programs such as victim impact programs with young offenders who seem to be headed for trouble in their lives.

Also advocating for victims rights and human rights has been a vital component of my life’s journey since that awful day. It is only when we all embrace the dignity of each other, and every single life, that we will move ahead as a society.

I work on these issues some would even say obsessively because I just cannot rest until we solve these problems. They are too serious.

JRP: How do you view the “victims’ right movement in the U.S.?

Do you think it has changed over the decades? What do you think is the biggest focus today of the movement?

JBJ: I actually have come to a much better understanding of the victims’ rights movement in recent years. At first since I had not any denials of my rights as a victim in my personal case I did not get as involved with it (the movement). But then I began to see how others were not as well treated as our family was. We were from a prosperous community where there were excellent services. But I came to see in time that most do not fare so well.

There is too much to say about this issue in a short article – victims services is a huge field, and there are many complex issues. But overall, a lack of funding, a lack of proper notification and counseling support, and a lack of consistency across the nation continue to seriously plague victims everywhere.

Everyone should be a victim advocate.

I do not use the term “victim” in a disempowering way. I use the term as a legal description. Victims by definition did not choose what happened to them. The reason why restorative justice as a model is so incredibly important is because it treats all crime as a community problem where the victim is fully at the table.

Right now nationally in most places victims services are tied to the offender. If he goes to trial, victim advocates can step in and inform the family, perhaps even escort them.

But if the offender is not caught, or tried, there often are no victims’ services. And that is in 80% of the cases of violent crime! No wonder we are a broken and hurting society!

JRP: How did you first learn of restorative justice? Do you believe you have experienced some kind of healing or restoration in your life as a crime survivor?

JBJ: I started being asked to speak at Restorative Justice conferences because of my visits to prisons, my work against the death penalty, and my public forgiveness of my sister’s killer. Though I do not ever want him to be free because he is unrepentant and still a very dangerous sociopath, I have released his power over my personal healing and journey by forgiving him. I did that for me, and for my sister, and for my whole family. And when I have seen the very positive things that have come for other families in cases where a true restorative justice process was possible, even independent of them serving their sentences, I have tried to work to make that possible for as many families as possible.

JRP: Have you ever considered victim offender dialogue in your own case with the offender? What was the sentence your offender received?

Has there been any contact? Would that be valuable to you? Under what conditions?

JBJ: The killer in our case, though definitely guilty, has not admitted officially to his crime. A few years ago when my father was dying of cancer I thought I would take the chance of reaching out to him again in the hopes that he would finally take responsibility for his crime. He was still not willing to admit it officially, and so I left it with him the thought that if he ever changed his mind, he knew where to find me.

JRP: Was there initial contact through letters or what? Who made the first contact? JRP has found that most prisons, guided by a department of corrections or the equivalent, victims are discouraged from any contact with their offenders.

JBJ: I was friends with another prisoner, because of my work against the death penalty, in the same prison where the killer was serving his three LWOP sentences. He arranged for me to be able to write the killer – so the first contact was mine. I wrote a very short letter simply stating that I had been working in Restorative Justice since my sister’s murder and that I would be willing to receive a letter from him if he was interested. He wrote back that he was very interested in having a friendly correspondence but that he was not ever going to admit he had killed them. Without going into too much detail, there was lots of evidence that the sociopath diagnosis of his earlier years had not at all been ameliorated. I wrote back a very short note that it seemed to me that he was not where he needed to be in order for us to use a restorative justice approach, but that if he ever changed his mind, he knew where to reach me.

JRP: Do you think there is value in encouraging more contact between victims and offenders? Do you think it leads to more accountability in the offenders regarding their crimes?

JBJ: I do think that there are few things more healing to victims than a truly repentant offender willing to be fully accountable for their crimes. I would never force this process on anyone, because all sides have to enter into it fully open to the process, I think for it to really work. But if it can work, few things could be more meaningful or helpful. That is why I work out the pain in our case, where it has not been possible, by helping others where it is possible.

JRP: You work for the Brady Campaign to stop gun violence. Do you see a connection between restorative justice and violence prevention on this level?

JBJ: Though many in the gun violence prevention movement are not fully aware of what the restorative justice movement is all about, some of us are, and it definitely has overlapping priorities and ideals.

The problem of gun violence in our nation is particularly insidious. There is a real “bad guy” in the NRA, and they truly, truly do not care about victims of violence – at all. They have taken the most unreasonable positions on issues of concerns to all of us trying to live safe and happy lives – like unrestricted access of criminals to the most powerful of weapons, and supporting everything from armor-piercing bullets to protecting gun dealers who knowingly traffic weapons to criminals. And because we have far, far more gun violence deaths than any other nation in the world – by the largest margins imaginable – and it is the number two killer in the nation behind cars, we have to look to community based initiatives to address the problem holistically. Prevention is vital. And common sense gun laws actually make a huge difference, but they won’t happen until we take back the control of our law-making bodies from the financially dominated influence of the powerful gun industry.

But when gun violence does happen, all too often, it is a particularly violent form of injury and trauma, and the damage it does to victims families runs so deep that restorative justice is needed more than ever to address the wounds left behind. Otherwise the cycles of violence are just perpetuated.

JRP: Your husband Bill Jenkins also works in the violence prevention field and has a personal story. Can you mention that briefly?

JBJ: I met my husband in 2001 at a conference for victims called “Healing the Wounds of Murder”. After Bill’s son was shot in the robbery of a fast-food restaurant, he wrote a book called What To Do When the Police Leave: A Guide to the First Days of Traumatic Loss (WBJ Press) which has become the “bible” for victims of violent death. He has won awards for it, and now travels all over the country teaching victims and victim advocates how to live in the wake of such horrible losses. Before we even met, we were both working against gun violence, for human rights and against the death penalty, and for victims’ rights. So meeting him has just been the greatest blessing because we now work as a team. And it has been for us what Bill calls a “redemption of tragedy”.

JRP: There are many views of restorative justice in the victims’ community nationally and abroad. Why do you think this subject is sometimes misunderstood?

JBJ: Without a doubt! One example of how it is misunderstood is happening right now here in Illinois. A group of prisoner advocates who are advocating for widespread releases from prison of long term sentenced offenders are trying to use lip service to Restorative Justice as a token nod to the victims they are frightening here, without really understanding it or embracing it at all.

Restorative Justice is hard work that takes a long time – it is not a quick easy fix. And it is not just a ticket for release from prison. And it cannot be tossed into complex political discussions in only a shallow way. These prisoner advocates we are trying to talk to here in Illinois actually only understand restorative justice as something that could just get their prisoners easily released. They do not see the long journey that victims have to take, and the need to fully engage victims in every step of the process that affects their loved ones’ killers’ sentences.

These prisoner advocates have actually tried to hide their legislative efforts from the victims and the public they are most affecting, and they are showing open hostility to victims who are worried about what they are doing, instead of trying to bring them to the table. All this, while only paying lip service to the need for restorative justice. Restorative justice cannot work under these conditions. Everyone involved has to be at the table. Everyone has to be fully engaged that is touched by the process.

JRP: Thanks so much for being with us. We have a long way to go to build bridges necessary to see restorative justice fully embraced and implemented nationally and around the world. You are a part of that process! If readers want to reach you how can they contact you?

JBJ: You are welcome and thanks for the great work you are doing at JRP. Folks are welcome to email me at jenniferbjenkins@aol.comThis e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it or we have an Illinois Victims Rights website at

Reprinted with the expressed permission of JRP. March 2007 JRP Online Magazine

The Justice and Reconciliation Project (JRP)


May 20, 2001

From the Chicago Tribune Magazine Cover Story "To Forgive Divine?"


March 24, 1982. Nancy Bishop is 17 and feeling the rush of opening-night
jitters as she takes the stage as Maria in New Trier High School's
production of "West Side Story." The exuberant youngest of the three
daughters of Lee and Joyce Bishop of Winnetka, Nancy throws herself into
the role, performing with particular zeal the classic "Somewhere," a song
about the search for peace and forgiveness in a deadly world.


Hold my hand and we're halfway there
Hold my hand and I'll take you there
Somewhere, somehow
We'll find a new way of living
We'll find a way of forgiving


May 23, 1987. Nancy Bishop is 23 and getting married to Richard Langert,
26, of Oak Lawn. They met 2 years ago, when Nancy was working for a
summer in the offices at Saratoga Specialties Corp., a chemical and spice
manufacturer in Elmhurst where Richard was a salesman. As the story goes,
it was Nancy who pursued Richard. She is a young woman who knows what she
wants, and having a family is No. 1 on her list. The wedding ceremony,
with sisters Jennifer and Jeanne as bridesmaids, takes place at the
Kenilworth Union Church in Kenilworth. A good friend of Nancy's sings
"Somewhere" during the ceremony.

Saturday, April 7, 1990. Nancy is 25 and three months into her first
pregnancy. It's 10 p.m. and she and Richard are returning home from
dinner out with Nancy's family in downtown Chicago. The family has 3 good
reasons to celebrate: Lee Bishop's 60th birthday, Nancy's passing the
critical 3-month point of her pregnancy and Nancy and Richard's imminent
move into their 1st house, in Prospect Heights, from their temporary
quarters in a Winnetka townhouse owned by Nancy's parents.

After dropping off her parents, Nancy and Richard step inside the dark
townhouse and find an intruder waiting for them, a .357 Magnum revolver
in his hands. He handcuffs the couple and leads them down into the
basement. Nancy and Richard plead for their lives and the life of their
baby; they offer the intruder $500, but he tosses the money on the floor.
He uncuffs the couple and orders them to lie on the concrete floor. He
shoots Richard 1st, execution-style, in the back of the head; Nancy
scrambles into a corner and covers her pregnant stomach, but it doesn't
work: The intruder shoots her in the abdomen. Nancy then makes a run for
the stairs, but is shot in the back before she gets there. She falls, and
the killer leaves.

But Nancy is not done. Using her elbows for leverage, she squirms across
the floor to some work tools and starts banging an ax against the floor
in an effort to attract someone's attention. After a few minutes, though,
she realizes this is futile. So Nancy gets back on her elbows--the
autopsy will find them bruised and bloodied--and drags herself over to
her dead husband, to be next to him when she dies. But she still isn't
finished. As Nancy lies there, the darkness closing in, she dips her
finger into a pool of blood and scrawls onto a box beside them the simple
message she always uses to end notes and letters to people she loves:
("heart") U.

April 11, 1990. Close to 1,200 people are packed into and spilling out of
Kenilworth Union Church for the funeral of Nancy and Richard Langert. At
the urging of Joyce Bishop, one of the songs during the ceremony is
Nancy's favorite, "Somewhere." Outside, the police are taking down the
license plate numbers of everyone in attendance, trying to develop leads
in their investigation of the murders. Among the mourners are Nick and
Joan Biro, who are Winnetka neighbors and acquaintances of Lee and Joyce
Bishop, and their 16-year-old son, David, a New Trier student.

Oct. 7, 1990. After 6 months and a $1.5 million investigation that
included the FBI, local police arrest David Biro. The break in the case
came when a friend told police that Biro had bragged to him about killing
Nancy and Richard. The murder weapon, a stolen .357 Magnum, is discovered
under Biro's bed. That night, Nancy's sister Jennifer has what she will
later call "a moment of real clarity." She is standing on a railroad
bridge looking down on the media zoo around the Winnetka Police Station
and is overwhelmed by a wave of pity for David Biro because, as she will
later say, "He had to be in the lowest place possible on Earth to do
something like this."

After a 2-week trial in November 1991, a Circuit Court jury finds Biro
guilty of the murders of Nancy and Richard and their unborn baby. Two
months later, Biro is sentenced to consecutive life terms without parole
and sent to Menard Correctional Center. In Illinois, unlike in some other
states, Biro is ineligible for the death penalty because he was not 18 at
the time of the murder. He has never acknowledged any guilt, and his
motive remains a mystery.

As the Bishop family leaves the courtroom, they are surrounded by
reporters. For the first and only time, Joyce Bishop steps up to a media
microphone. Reporters ask her what the family's plans are. "We are going
to the graves to grieve," Joyce says, standing straight and still amid
the maelstrom. "We are going to tell Nancy and Richard that they can rest
in peace."

It took a year or so after the murders for Jennifer and Jeanne Bishop,
now 43 and 41, to begin to surface from the deep well of anguish that the
murders had plunged them into. But once that happened, both sisters knew
what they had to do: get involved in the fight against the death penalty
and for stricter gun control laws--even though they both had full-time
jobs and would eventually have children.

"I'm going to be doing this for the rest of my life with every ounce of
energy I have to give it," Jennifer says. "And it's all because of Nancy,
because of that last message of love she left us. . . . There's no way,
as a tribute to this person who was so full of love, that we could spend
15 years trying to kill another human being."

To that end, seven months after the murders Jeanne quit her job as a
corporate attorney with a Loop law firm and became a public defender,
representing people like the man who killed Nancy and Richard. "Nancy's
death put many things into perspective for me," Jeanne says, "like not
caring so much about the things I'd been so concerned about before, like

The 1st time Jennifer and Jeanne participated in a public event was at a
rally against handguns; they joined the Illinois Council Against Handgun
Violence. Then both soon became involved with anti-capital punishment
work, joining the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty. The
majority of the work consisted of telling their story as often as they
could in speeches across the Midwest, particularly in Illinois.

After a few years, Jennifer and Jeanne heard about and joined Murder
Victims' Families for Reconciliation, a victim-oriented anti-death
penalty organization founded 25 years ago and based in Boston. The group
has about 2,500 members from across the country who firmly believe that
death by execution is just another senseless whirl in the United States'
relentless cycle of violence. The group does not require that its members
forgive the killer or killers; the "reconciliation" in the group's title
has the same meaning that Catholics use in their sacrament of
reconciliation--making peace with God and yourself and what has happened.
Bringing your life back together.

But some members, including Jennifer and Jeanne, say forgiveness is their
main motivation. Member Bud Welch lost his daughter, Julie, in the
Oklahoma City bombing, a crime for which Timothy McVeigh received the
death penalty. Welch has publicly forgiven McVeigh.

"People presume we're either psychos or saints," says Renny Cushing,
executive director of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation.
Cushing lost his father to murder 12 years ago. "Society refuses to
acknowledge that we're just people who've had a terrible thing happen to
us, and we've come to understand that the only thing that makes any sense
to us is to not repeat the violence. Our message [of reconciliation and
non-violence] is an offering that we make to society, an offering we've
paid for in blood. That's how we give meaning to our loss."

Jennifer was recently named national president of the murder victims'
families group. Much of the sisters' work for the organization, which is
all on a volunteer basis, involves providing emotional support. People
who join the group--most are referred through churches--have a great need
for a shoulder to cry on and a sympathetic ear ready to listen to their
stories about the loved ones they lost and how it happened. "Whenever we
are together we still spend a hunk of time sharing our grief and
memories," Jennifer says.

Then come the more political aspects of coordinating members, giving
speeches and organizing meetings and events to work against the death
penalty, to spread the philosophy of reconciliation and non-violence.
Both Jennifer and Jeanne make dozens of speeches and presentations each
year. "I think this is a message our society needs to hear," Jennifer
says, "because I think most people know deep down that [reconciliation]
is the real truth."

There's no doubt that for Jennifer and Jeanne Bishop, their work is the
best way they've found to honor their sister.

"Every time I talk to a room full of people about it, I feel like I'm
opening up my veins," Jeanne says. "But Nancy is up there in heaven,
tapping us on our shoulders, asking, 'What have you done today?'"

"It's the way that I make sense of all of this," Jennifer says. "There's
no other way Nancy's death makes any sense to me."

Though forgiveness is a central tenet of Christianity and is em-braced by
many spiritual leaders as a way to deal with loss, it is difficult to
reconcile with notions of justice and is often overwhelmed by the more
visceral human desire for revenge. Even those who support the idea of
forgiveness after murder emphasize that it is a very difficult process,
and takes place only after a long time. Forgiveness is possible, they
say, but few people actually manage to do it; most are simply unable to
let go of enough of their rage and intense feelings of loss. And it's a
2-person job: The person responsible for the murder has to be willing to
acknowledge his or her crime and accept the forgiveness. Otherwise, the
process gets short-circuited.

"That's why, when the pope went to visit and forgive the man who shot him
in St. Peter's Square or Cardinal Bernardin went to see and forgive the
man who falsely accused him of molestation, we see these as saintly
acts," says Don Browning, professor of religious ethics and the social
sciences at the University of Chicago. "I think we have to understand
that forgiveness is very, very hard to do and not everyone can do it.
It's an extra-special act, and that's why it can't be included in the
ordinary organizing of society. It's a special spiritual gift."

But forgiveness can also double back and bestow gifts on people who
forgive, Browning says. Such people "can be the beneficiary of their own
forgiveness, because it can allow them to get beyond the evil that happened."

Rabbi Byron Sherwin, vice president of academic affairs and professor of
ethics at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago, disagrees
that forgiveness is possible, or even desirable, and says it's justice
that must be served.

"In the Jewish tradition," Sherwin says, "there are only 2 possibilities
of forgiveness--from the victim or from God. Any other person doesn't
have the right to forgive." It's justice that's most important, he says
--justice as distinguished from revenge or retribution. He advises
de-emphasizing revenge and seeking justice, "even if it's a next-world

Society has no right to stop seeking justice, "because that's the fabric
that keeps society together," Sherwin says. "People are more upset when
justice isn't done than when forgiveness is given." Sherwin warns that
people should not get caught up in trying to extract revenge, because
that can lead to self-destruction, which just gives the killer another
victory. But people also shouldn't "blankly forgive," because that's
giving up on the search for justice. "If there is no justice, then
there's no meaning to the murder."

Victims' family members, whether they struggle toward forgiveness or not,
agree on several points: the great need to tell their stories, the vital
importance of getting beyond the horrible image of the moment of the
murder, and the necessity for advocacy and programs for victims' family
members; the victimization of the survivors is a common and sometimes
tragic byproduct of violence.

Marilyn Baldwin has worked with murder victims' families for 14 years,
overseeing appeals and capital cases for the Cook County State's Attorney
Victim/Witness Program. One of her jobs is helping victims' families
prepare for and recover from executions. She believes the death penalty
brings a just conclusion to the criminal justice process and can help
family members heal.

"Closure is different for everyone," she says. "It's not like all their
problems are solved by the execution, but there is a peace that comes
with the end of the criminal justice process, the end [victims' families]
were promised for so long. . . . There's a misconception about these
people [survivors] being bloodthirsty. They just want an end to it and
punishment carried out and hopefully to be able to be free from all that.
As one mother said to me, 'You know, we got the death penalty too.'"

Baldwin has worked with the National Organization of Victim Advocates to
develop a video to help families through the process, which can take a
heavy toll on relationships. "The divorce rate is staggering," Baldwin
says. "It's the worst thing that can happen to a family. It's not that
[the killer] took 1 or 2 lives; the fallout on the whole family is

One of the family members Baldwin has worked with is Dawn Pueschel, 44.
On Aug. 29, 1983, her brother and sister-in-law, Dean and Jo Ellen
Pueschel, were savagely beaten to death in their Rogers Park apartment
(Jo Ellen was also raped). Their 11-year-old son, Ricky, was also beaten,
but he survived. 2 brothers, Reginald and Jerry Mahaffey, were eventually
convicted and sent to death row for the crimes. Pueschel wants to be
present when the Mahaffeys die. "I'm not a crazy person. But I would like
to be there when they're executed."

After 18 years, not an uncommon eclipse of time in capital cases, she
just wants it to be over. "I know [executing them] is not going to
accomplish anything, really. But my family is dead, that's how I think
about it. And why should [the Mahaffey brothers] have the right to live
and breathe and read and get an education, when they have killed my
family? My family was slaughtered and had no rights at all."

It is a cold and gray early February Sunday evening; Jennifer and Jeanne
Bishop are sitting in the living room of Jeanne's Evanston home.
Jennifer, now living in Kankakee, is recently divorced and the mother of
Elizabeth, 9, and Amanda, 7. She is a history teacher whose specialty is
teaching gifted junior high and high school students. Jeanne is the
mother of 21-month-old Brendan and is married to musician Russell Gloyd.
Jeanne's 5-year-old golden retriever is nudging from sister to sister to
visitor, trolling for attention. The dog is named Swansea, in honor of
the place in Wales that Nancy and Richard had decided was their favorite
place in the world.

For Jennifer and Jeanne, talking about Nancy and the murders and the path
they have traveled the last 11 years is both heart-wrenching and
life-affirming. They say that without a doubt it's Nancy who motivates
them, the exuberance with which she lived and the message of love she
left as she died.

"Can you imagine?" Jennifer asks, recalling Nancy's last moments. "There
she is, her husband is dead in front of her, her baby is dead inside of
her, she's going to be dead in moments, but she had one final message for
us. With the last ounce of energy and life in her, Nancy found the truth
that people spend their whole lives searching for--that love is all that

"There's a verse in the Bible that says, 'Love is stronger than death,'"
Jeanne says. "It's so true."

Although Jennifer and Jeanne remain committed to the struggle of
forgiving David Biro, the process is incomplete, they say, because he
refuses to participate. Biro, who would not comment for this story, is
not willing to enter into any sort of forgiveness process with the
Bishops or Langerts, says his attorney, Bob Gevirtz, because that would
require admitting legal guilt in the murders. Biro has been found guilty
of the murders in criminal and civil courts.

"If there is a heaven on Earth," Jennifer says, "it's living in love,
like my sister was. If there is a hell, it's living in total alienation
like David Biro was. That's where my forgiveness comes from, feeling
incredible pity for him."

"My ability to forgive David Biro," Jeanne says, "is centered around what
I've learned from my faith. I ask myself, What does David Biro owe me? He
owes me a beautiful sister; he owes me a brother-in-law; he owes me a
niece or a nephew; he owes me every holiday celebration for the rest of
my life. . . . What do I owe David Biro? Absolutely nothing. But what do
I owe God? I owe it to God to forgive David Biro, because I have been
forgiven by God."

Make no mistake, both sisters are glad Biro will never get out of prison.
They describe with obvious satisfaction the moment in Biro's trial when
he was on the witness stand and the prosecutor heaped "withering scorn"
on his story that the bragging he'd done about the murders was just a lot
of joking. "I'm completely glad for every minute of that 2-hour
cross-examination," Jennifer says. "We could actually see him deflate on
the stand," Jeanne says.

Lee and Joyce Bishop support the death penalty, so they are not members
of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation. But Jennifer and Jeanne
are quick to say their parents, particularly their mother, have been
supportive of their work with the group. The diverging views, though,
have led to some lively discussions at the family dinner table. "My dad
agrees with the [Illinois' death penalty] moratorium; but he sees it as a
way to correct the system, while I see it as a step toward abolishing the
death penalty," Jennifer says. "We joke about how our votes cancel each
other out." Lee Bishop, a labor relations lawyer for 35 years, is retired
and teaches 7th and 8th graders as a substitute at Wilmette Junior High.

Jennifer and Jeanne agree that the murders brought their family closer
together than it had been before--even though there have been some tense
and angry moments, stress-caused arguments. And both say they are more
determined than they probably would have been to remain as close as
possible as a family.

But the scars, too, remain. Jennifer and Jeanne live with anxieties
stemming from the murders 11 years ago. "When I'm out and I call to check
in, and my husband or the baby-sitter doesn't answer the phone right
away, I think, 'The intruder is in the house and everybody is dead.'"

"I have lived with visual imagery of my daughters' deaths," Jennifer
says. "Just walking along the street or in the woods or whatever, I see
my girls being dropped over a cliff. . . . It used to be worse, but I
still see this imagery all the time."

Because of Nancy's love of children, the Bishop family established a
memorial garden behind Kenilworth Union Church for Nancy and Richard and
their unborn baby. The garden is in a small courtyard enclosed on three
sides by the stone walls of the church. In the center of the garden is a
larger-than-life bronze sculpture of Jesus; the statue, which the Bishops
commissioned, is designed so that children can sit in Jesus' lap. Any
time a child in the congregation dies, his or her name is added to the
memorial plaque. The memorial now bears the names of 20 children.

The 2 sisters greatly enjoy telling funny stories about Nancy, laughing
hard about pranks she used to get away with because she was the youngest
child. But such conversations have a way of always veering back to April
7, 1990.

"Remember," Jennifer says softly to her sister, "what we said to each
other the 1st time we saw each other after we heard the news?" Jeanne
nods and closes her eyes. "That the two of us could never be alone
together again--that Nancy would always be there with us?"

March 9, 2001. On this gloomy and cold March evening, Jennifer and Jeanne
are attending, with several hundred others, a downtown memorial service
for Dick Cunningham, an attorney and a vigorous opponent of the death
penalty who represented Death Row inmates. Cunningham was stabbed to
death in his home, allegedly by his son, Jesse, 26, who has a history of
mental illness. Jennifer and Jeanne are there not only as friends of the
Cunningham family but also as representatives of Murder Victims' Families
for Reconciliation.

When it's their turn to speak, the sisters walk forward and Jennifer
takes the microphone. She explains to the audience about the group and
calls to the front any members present. Jennifer then pauses, clears her
throat and says, "My sister, Jeanne, and I are going to sing you a
song--a song neither of us has sung since our sister Nancy's funeral 11
years ago."

Their voices then rise up into Nancy's favorite, "Somewhere," Jennifer in
the lead, Jeanne offering harmony.


Medill Chicago News Service — Northwestern University

Victim-impact panel teaches juvenile offenders consequences of their actions
by Kristin A. Volk
February 02, 2005

It was late on a Saturday night when Richard Langert and his pregnant wife, Nancy, arrived at their Winnetka townhouse after a family birthday party to find a strange youth waiting for them.

David Biro, a 16-year-old New Trier High School student, was sitting in an easy chair in the couple's living room holding a .357 magnum handgun.

Pointing the gun at their heads, Biro bound the terrified young couple's wrists with handcuffs and led them to the basement.

"I'm pregnant. We're begging for our lives!" said Nancy,25, who was three-and a half months pregnant. "Please, please don't hurt us."

Biro was not swayed.

He blew Richard's brains out, splattering blood across his wife who was lying next to the 28-year old plant manager.

"Please don't hurt me. Please don't hurt my baby!" pleaded Nancy, with her arms crossed over her stomach.

But a cold-hearted Biro shot Nancy in the stomach, instantly killing her unborn child. As she lay bleeding to death on the basement floor, Nancy called for help in the darkness.

It never came.

Before the young wife took her last breath, Nancy Langert expressed her undying love to her husband of three years. She drew a heart and the letter "U" in his blood on the metal storage shelves above her.

This horrific event tale took place nearly 15 years ago on April 7, 1990.

But the graphic story of how Richard and Nancy Langert died was recalled in vivid detail recently to an audience of more than 30 juvenile delinquents who were part of a unique crime deterrent program at the Skokie Courthouse..

Telling the story was Nancy Langert's sister, Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, who, since the murders, has become a fervent death penalty opponent and advocate for young people.

(Biro was arrested after he revealed details about the murder to a friend. He was convicted of murdering the Langerts and their unborn child and is now serving three consecutive life terms in prison.) As one of three speakers at a Victim-Impact panel forum,Bishop-Jenkins told the young crowd she hoped her message would make delinquents think twice before victimizing someone.

"I want to try to help them understand what it feels like to be a victim," said Bishop-Jenkins who is vice-principal at Chicago's St. Scholastica High School and has worked to abolish the death penalty in Illinois and around the country. "Why he (Biro) was able to point that gun at my beautiful sister and pull that trigger is because he had no sense of human connection."

Since it was started two years ago, Cook County Juvenile Court's victim-impact panels have taught more than 2,000 young offenders about the harmful consequences of their behavior. The program also has allowed crime victims to talk to offenders about what it was like to be hurt, robbed or threatened.

"Through the victim-impact panels, kids can begin to understand that there's an emotional, physical and financial loss to victims of crime," said Chuck Michalek, Cook County Juvenile Court's Deputy Chief Probation Officer.

Juvenile offenders,whose crimes range from burglary to auto theft and armed robbery, must attend one victim-impact panel as a condition of probation.

"The panel made me realize that I have a chance to make it and not screw up my life," said a 16-year-old girl from the northern Cook County suburbs who is charged with retail theft.

Bishop-Jenkins' husband, Bill Jenkins, also described how his life changed after his 16-year-old son was murdered eight years ago. Bishop-Jenkins and Jenkins met at a murder-victim conference nearly four years ago.

"This is the reason why I want to make the world a better place," said Jenkins, who held up a framed picture of his son William."You can control how you're going to react, what you're going to do, and we do this because we don't want to give up on you."

William Jenkins was murdered on the night of Aug.12, 1997 in Richmond, Virginia as he was leaving work at a local fast-food restaurant. It was only his second day on the job when a 23-year-old man killed young Jenkins with a 380 semi-automatic handgun in an attempt to rob the restaurant. The murderer received life in prison without parole.

"We've been hurt by people who shouldn't have hurt us!" Jenkins told the group. "Damn it! They shouldn't have hurt us."

After hearing the Jenkinses speak, a 16-year-old girl who helped rob a house, said the stories opened her eyes to the consequences of committing a crime.

"It's sad to see a young guy like that do something that big," she said speaking of Biro. "It inspired me to not do something stupid and make wrong decisions."

Dana Stevens, a youth pastor in North Lawndale who has been robbed 10 times and lost three close friends to gunfire in the last eight years, said that although he tries to teach children to stay out of trouble, the victim-impact panel is a learning experience for him as well.

"There's a history to every face," said Stevens,32. "I want to acquire a greater understanding of how I can empower them with tools that will help break the cycle of violence and crime."

For Jenkins, it's not only a learning experience but a healing process too.

"It's helping good things come out of a bad situation," he said. "It's like opening up a big vein sometimes, but I have something important to share and I have a responsibility to do so."

Jenkins' story did not fall on deaf ears.

"Bill touched me because I have a son of my own," said an 18-year-old boy who served time in the Juvenile Detention Center for aggravated battery and domestic violence. "Everything he said changed me. I'm going to treat people how they should be treated. I'm going to let my friends know that their lifestyle isn't good, and I can't be around that."


From the PEW FORUM - A Call For Reckoning: Religion and the Death Penalty

Grief, Closure, and Forgiveness

Jeanne Bishop

My sister Nancy Bishop Langert was murdered when she was 25 years old. She and her husband Richard were returning home from a restaurant the night before Palm Sunday, 1990. The killer, a local teenager with a criminal history, was waiting for them, gun pointed. He handcuffed Richard. Nancy, who was three months pregnant with what would have been her first child, begged for the life of her baby.

The killer forced Nancy and Richard into the basement. He shot Richard once through the back of the head, execution style. He turned the gun on Nancy. She protectively folded her arms across her pregnant belly, but he fired there anyway, twice. Then he left her to bleed to death. Blood and marks on her body revealed what Nancy did in her last moments: she tried unsuccessfully to crawl upstairs to the telephone. She banged on a metal shelf in a futile attempt to summon help. Finally, when she must have known she was dying, she dragged herself over to her husband’s body and wrote in her own blood a heart symbol and the letter “u.” Love you.

The killer was arrested six months later. Police found in his room the gun (which ballistics tests showed was the murder weapon), the burglary tools he used to break in, handcuffs, a trophy book of press clippings about the murders, his own poems about killing. Police learned he had even gone to Nancy and Richard’s funeral.

A jury convicted him of the first degree murders of Nancy and Richard and of the intentional homicide of an unborn child. The court sentenced him to life without parole on all three charges. Because he was 16 at the time of the murders, he was ineligible for the death penalty in Illinois. After the judge sentenced him and the sheriffs took him away, my mother turned to me and said, “We’ll never see him again.” When we left the courtroom that day, a reporter asked us if we were disappointed that the killer didn’t get the death penalty. That was the first time I had an opportunity to say what I’ve been saying ever since: No.

I thought a lot about this answer when I watched interviews with family members of the Oklahoma City victims after Timothy McVeigh was executed. Family members said they were dissatisfied. McVeigh hadn’t suffered enough. He hadn’t said he was sorry. And they hadn’t gotten what they were promised by federal officials who had sought and carried out the execution: closure. Those family members were looking in the wrong place. First, there’s no such thing as closure. Second, the death penalty is the most anti-victim response to murder imaginable.

“Closure”, a neatly wrapped-up end to the horror and grief of murder, simply doesn’t exist—nor perhaps should it. The most blatant perpetrators of this lie are death penalty proponents who promise executions that bring psychological resolution, even peace, to family members on a specific date. It doesn’t happen this way. Grief, the culmination of sweet memories and the bitter loss of possibilities, lives on—and it should. The grief I felt after my sister’s murder is not closed. It lives in me today, but differently. At first it was a grief that numbed, that paralyzed. Now it is a grief that energizes me to love more passionately, to share more generously, to live more fearlessly, to work to prevent the violence which could inflict on another family the suffering mine has endured.

You don’t hold back love when you understand that people can be snatched from you at any moment. You don’t waste time being afraid when you realize how short life is. Every day I’ve lived since Nancy’s murder is one day she never got to have; now I try to live in a way that honors her and the God who gave the gift of life in the first place. Grief taught me this.

In the play “Shadowlands,” C. S. Lewis, whose wife, Joy Gresham, is dying of terminal cancer, exclaims that the prospect of life without her is too painful to discuss. She answers, “The pain then is part of the happiness now. That’s the deal.” So it is with Nancy and me. The pain now is part of the happiness then, when she lived. The memories of Nancy’s life and death, painful as they are, also bring tremendous joy. Why would I “close” that, even if I could? The notion that killing another human being, no matter how despicable his act, could somehow honor this grief, even heal it, is a lie.

It’s a lie because the death penalty is, frankly, anti-victim. First, death inadequately punishes the killer. The most common proposition—a life for a life—is obscene. If all my sister’s killer could give me in return for my loved ones was his own life, I would wholly reject it. His life is not enough for theirs; his death could not begin to pay for theirs. To suggest that the killer’s death is equivalent to those of the victims insults their memory.

The death penalty is also anti-victim because it squanders the money and attention that should go to victims and wastes those resources on the killer. Millions upon millions of dollars were spent to execute Timothy McVeigh; countless more millions were spent publicizing the execution—and McVeigh. We are no safer now that he is dead rather than incarcerated for the rest of his life. But we are poorer. Money which could have paid for police officers, crime prevention, hospitals, damage restitution, counseling for victims and their families, and scholarships for victims’ dependents went instead to death row personnel and security, lethal injection drugs and apparatus, court costs, media platforms, cameras, reporters, news trucks, ad nauseum.

The death penalty is anti-victim because it promises what it cannot deliver. It does not deter crime; it does not make us safer; it does not even punish (how does one punish a person who no longer exists?). Finally, the death penalty is anti-victim because it perpetuates the evil idea behind my sister’s death: that one human being has the right to snuff out the life of another. Executing Nancy’s killer would erase him from the earth. But the reality is that the death penalty does not limit blood shed but always fosters even more killing.

That grief can somehow be good and that killing to even the score is wrong are radical notions, particularly in light of September 11 and its aftermath. But Hannah Arendt , writing after the Holocaust , pointed out that forgiveness—not forgetting but refusing to be diminished to the level of murder-- is one of two human capacities which make it possible to alter the political future. The poet W. H. Auden wrote in the wake of the blitzkrieg of Poland that “We must love one another or die.”

Forgiveness, love: these abilities are not fuzzy-headed idealism; they are pragmatic practices of extraordinary courage. Vengeance didn’t work in South Africa or Northern Ireland. Forgiveness has. Vengeance has not worked in our criminal justice system. Beside the bloodshed of execution and leniency for murderers, there is a third way: punishment without violence. Life without the possibility of parole.

“We’ll never see him again,” my mother said that day. And it’s proven to be true. We’ve been allowed to process our grief, day by day, year by year. We’ve been blessed to do this without another death on our hearts. My sister’s killer will spend the rest of his life in prison. His life will be his punishment. And because he lives I can work to extend to him the forgiveness he has neither asked for nor deserves. Not for him, but for God, for Nancy and for myself.

Jeanne Bishop is a public defender in Cook County IL, and is a member of the national board of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, an organization composed of murder victims' family members who oppose the death penalty.

From leading Victim activist for Restorative Justice, Azim Khamisa:

The Top 10 Misconceptions about Forgiveness

10. It's too hard to forgive.
The truth is: It can be hard, but not too hard, not when you have the right support and perspective.

9. Forgiveness is only for religious people.
The truth is: It's for all of us walking the planet.

8. Forgiving another person doesn't do any good really.
The truth is: It not only uplifts you AND that person in ways unseen, but it brings that much more light to a world in need.

7. Forgiveness is done by saying the words "I forgive you."
The truth is: Forgiveness resides not only in words but also in thought, feeling and action.

6. When you are forgiving, you are "pardoning" someone's bad behavior.
The truth is: There is no "pardoning," just a clearer perception on who that other person truly is, and what they can still provide to your life, to a community and to a society.

5. Forgiveness is for the other person.
The truth is: Forgiving another is an act we do for ourselves, to free ourselves from the pain or bitterness.

4. Forgiving someone tells that person that whatever he or she did was acceptable with you.
The truth is: Accepting their actions and accepting their true nature underneath it all are two very different things. You can make that clear.

3. Forgiveness lets people off the hook, so they aren't accountable to their actions.
The truth is: Forgiveness and accountability are not the same topic. You can have both. Forgive another by offering empathy and unity; yet still uphold the process of accountability within the social structure.

2. Forgiveness is a passive endeavor.
The truth is: Forgiveness is a very active endeavor, where you can ultimately reach out in love and compassion to the other person.

1. Withholding forgiveness hurts the other person.
The truth is: Withholding forgiveness hurts yourself.

The Chicago Sun-Times columnist Carol Marin writes about Governor Ryan
and we contribute thoughts about Restorative Justice

Editor's Note: In a conversation with the columnist Carol Marin, leading to the column below, about how the principles of Restorative Justice might be applied to the situation with Governor George Ryan, I spoke to her first in generalities about the principles of Restorative Justice. Like many who appreciate the good man George Ryan is, we all have hoped for any other solution to this problem other than his late in life years in prison.

The first step in any RJ situation is always acknowledging harm.

I spoke to her about how RJ has been applied in other nations such as South Africa where instead of criminal prosecution, after Apartheid fell, Truth and Reconciliation Commissions brought together those harmed with those responsible and there was honesty and accountability, harm acknowledged and healing focused on. It is a waste to have created a criminal justice system in which a decent man who has done a lot of good in his years of public service is sent off to jail with no other options.  Governor Ryan being in prison at this stage in his life doesn't do anyone any good and doesn't heal anything.

The public evidence has been clear - Ryan is not responsible for the deaths of the Willis family. The truck that hit their van had a faulty part - the driver was not even to blame, though he did obtain his commercial license through a bribe (from an employee of the Secretary of State's office that was hired by Governor Edgar, not Governor Ryan). The truck company acknowledged culpability when they settled with the Willis family for $100 million. The Wisconsin police and other investigators so completely cleared the driver that they did not even ticket him for the accident.

Though the Willis family has asked Governor Ryan to apologize, he has said that he was very sad for what happened to their family, but of course was not able to apologize for something that he is not responsible for.

The Willis family has received an apology of sorts - in the form of the large settlement from the truck company. But of course no such admissions are ever enough for what they have had taken from them. No price is ever enough.

The political climate in Illinois will continue to foster problems for all who are forced to "work the system" to lead in public office -- until we once and for all eliminate Pay to Play. Other states have done it. Illinois needs to also. And until the nation adopts public financing of all elections, we will not have a system free of the fundraising obligations that lead to public scandal.

I have never understood why we are willing to imprison official after official but not reform the system that makes the financial connections between leaders and power-brokers unavoidable.

The principles of Restorative Justice could have guided a much more positive outcome for this whole mess.

Finally, Governor Ryan has done a lot of good for this state, not the least of which was the most courageous exposure of huge flaws in the criminal justice system that stands historic in its proportions. Few public officials have accomplished as much, and for it he was a Nobel Peace Prize nominee. Deservedly so.

We admire Carol Marin - her career has been rich with her integrity. She cares about people, and her journalistic gifts have placed her at the top of her field nationally. We appreciate the fact that this column is trying to advance opportunities for healing, and does acknowledge some of the good in our former Governor.

My thoughts always are with the families like the Willises who have had loved ones die, as I have. And my thoughts are with the Ryan family, who are heartbroken and whose good lives should have given them a better outcome. It does not seem like any of us are really much better off for all of this.

George Ryan's last free Sunday
For Sunday 4 November 07
Chicago Sun-Times
Carol Marin, columnist

     Today is George Ryan's last Sunday as a free man.
     Our former governor, the Kankakee pharmacist who rose to the highest office in Illinois, on Wednesday will walk into a federal prison in Minnesota.
          As someone who has written and reported on Ryan's corruption for a long time now, am I suddenly going all soft and teary-eyed?
     No. But a bit sad.
     Ryan is guilty, dead bang guilty, of all the tawdry frauds of which he was accused.  And responsible, though he won't admit it, for a thoroughly crooked commercial driver's license system that allowed an unfit trucker to bribe his way behind the wheel of what became a killing machine for six children named Willis.
     And yet, and yet, as a reporter who in 1996 watched the lethal injection of an Illinois inmate at Stateville Prison who twisted and heaved and twitched convulsively before he died, I think we also owe George Ryan a debt for suspending executions in this state.
     That death row inmate whose execution I witnessed, by the way, was dead bang guilty too.  His name was Ray Lee Stewart, a man of diminished intellect and wild rages who terrorized Rockford in 1983 in a killing spree that left six people dead. 
     Ryan's issue was not lethal injection, but rather wrongful prosecution.  Putting people on Death Row who were framed, or tortured into confessing.  You may not believe he was sincere about all that, but I do.
     By putting a moratorium on the death penalty in 2000 and clearing out Death Row in 2002, he made us think as we'd never thought before about how easy it has been over the years to kill the wrong person.  And now, the US Supreme Court is taking the national death penalty discussion one step further, asking if lethal injection violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
     As a consequence of the Supreme Court's halting the Mississippi execution of Earl Berry just minutes before he was scheduled to die, in October judges and wardens across the country  turned the lights out on their death chambers until the high court formally decides whether the three-drug killing cocktail used in lethal injections is torturous.
     Last month was the first time in three years, according to the Associated Press, there were no executions in the United States.  Not even in George Bush's Texas which holds the record.
     Illinois has done better.  It hasn't had an execution since 1999.  I'd argue that's a point of pride for this state and a testament to what George Ryan did right.
     Now, if only he'd do one more thing.
     It's something even his supporters wish he'd do.
     Offer a heartfelt, sincere apology for what he did wrong.
     It wouldn't keep him out of prison.  It shouldn't keep him out of prison.  But, like his death penalty work, it would have meaning.         
Jennifer Bishop Jenkins certainly believes that.  Jenkins is as interesting and ironic a supporter of George Ryan as you will ever find.  In 1990, her pregnant sister and husband were brutally murdered in Winnetka by a 16-year-old boy who is now a grown man, spending his life in prison. 
     Jenkins, who does not believe the death penalty will heal her family's wounds or ease their profound loss, has long sought an apology, an acknowledgment of wrongdoing from her sister's unrepentant killer.
     Even though she doesn't honestly think that George Ryan should bear the blame for the deaths of the Willis kids, she sees what saying “I'm sorry” would accomplish. 
“I am imagining the Willis family and the Ryan family,” she said.  “A family that has never been able to hear anyone accountable say to them 'we are so sorry for what happened to your family', and a sad and quiet man heading off to spend what is quite probably the rest of his life in prison…..”  With an apology, said Jenkins, “Beyond the level of crime and punishment, down deep to the level of the human heart, there could be some healing.”
     And at this late stage in George Ryan's life, some honor too.


When we read articles like this below, we urge states more and more to look to Restorative Justice alternatives for the less serious crimes as a solution:
US prisons full, but crime, cost to taxpayers soar
Researchers urge shorter sentences, major overhaul

WASHINGTON - The number of people in US prisons has risen eightfold since 1970, with little impact on crime but at great cost to taxpayers and society, researchers said yesterday in a report calling for a major justice-system overhaul.
The report cites examples ranging from former vice-presidential aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby to a Florida woman's two-year sentence for throwing a cup of coffee to make its case for reducing the US prison population of 2.2 million - nearly one-fourth of the world's total.
It recommends shorter sentences and parole terms, alternative punishments, more help for released inmates, and decriminalizing recreational drugs as steps to cut the prison population in half, save $20 billion a year, and ease social inequality without endangering the public.
But the recommendations run counter to decades of broad US public and political support for getting tough on criminals through longer, harsher prison terms. They also are in opposition to the Bush administration's antidrug and strict-sentencing policies.
"President Bush was right" in commuting Libby's perjury sentence this year as excessive, the report says. "But while he was at it, President Bush should have commuted the sentences of hundreds of thousands of Americans who each year have also received prison sentences for crimes that pose little if any danger or harm to our society."
The report was produced by the JFA Institute, a Washington criminal-justice research group, and its authors included eight criminologists from major US public universities. It was funded by the Rosenbaum Foundation and financier and political activist George Soros's Open Society Institute.
The US Department of Justice did not have an immediate comment on the report. But the Bush administration has previously resisted proposals to relax sentencing guidelines.
There are signs of shifting attitudes on sentencing policies. Some financially strapped states are shortening sentences, and Congress is moving toward bipartisan passage of increased help for released prisoners, said executive director Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, which has advocated alternatives to long sentences.
"Compared to where we were in the [mid-1990s], it's been a very significant change," Mauer said.
More than 1.5 million people are now in US state and federal prisons, up from 196,429 in 1970, the report said. Another 750,000 people are in local jails. The US incarceration rate is the world's highest, followed by Russia, according to 2006 figures compiled by Kings College in London.
Since 1970, the US population has risen 50 percent overall.
Although the US crime rate began declining in the 1990s it is still about the same as in 1973, the JFA report said. But the prison population has soared because sentences have gotten longer and people who violate parole or probation, even with minor lapses, are more likely to be imprisoned.
"The system is almost feeding on itself now. It takes years and years and years to get out of this system, and we do not see any positive impact on the crime rates," James Austin, president of the JFA and a coauthor of the report, said at a news conference.
The report said the prison population is projected to grow by another 192,000 in five years, at a cost of $27.5 billion to build and operate additional prisons.
At current rates, one-third of all black males, one-sixth of Latino males, and one in 17 white males will go to prison during their lives.
Women represent the fastest-growing segment of the prison population, the report said. The result is increased social and racial inequality.
"The massive incarceration of young males from mostly poor- and working-class neighborhoods, and the taking of women from their families and jobs, [have] crippled their potential for forming healthy families and achieving economic gains," the report said. 

© Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company


Could you forgive a person who murdered your family? This is the question faced by the subjects of As We Forgive, a documentary about two Rwandan women coming face-to-face with the men who slaughtered their families during the 1994 genocide. Struggling to live again as neighbors, these survivors and killers discover the power and pain of radical reconcilation. Winner of 2008 Student Academy Award for Best Documentary. Recommended by IllinoisVictims.Org.
To host a screening or view the trailer, contact the filmakers at:          or

OVC announces the release of the Victim Impact:
Listen and Learn curriculum!

The Victim Impact curriculum uses a victim-centered approach that is designed to help facilitators in their efforts to make offenders more aware of the impact that crime has on victims, to take responsibility for their actions, and begin to make amends.