Peter Kotecki/The Daily Northwestern
Public defender and author Jeanne Bishop (Medill ’81, School of Law ’84) spoke Tuesday evening at Bookends & Beginnings about the tragedy that struck her family more than 25 years ago and shared thoughts on forgiveness.
Addressing about 60 people, Bishop read from her book, Change of Heart, a story about the murder of Bishop’s sister and brother-in-law. Bishop also facilitated a discussion about criminal justice with NU alumnus Patrick Keenan-Devlin (Weinberg ’06, Bienen ’06), deputy director of the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy, an Evanston nonprofit providing free legal representation, social work services and advice to youth and their families.
In 1990, Bishop’s sister, Nancy, her husband Richard Langert and their unborn child were murdered at their Winnetka home. Their killer, David Biro, was a student at New Trier High School.
Biro was arrested six months after the shooting when he bragged about committing the crime to a friend, who contacted the Winnetka police. A jury sentenced Biro to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Bishop said she forgave Biro, because hating him would consume her instead of affecting him. Bishop became a public defender in Cook County, advocating for issues such as gun violence prevention and abolition of the death penalty, she said.
Bishop told her audience she didn’t speak Biro’s name for several years, until she read Set Free by Forgiveness: The Way to Peace and Healing, a book by Randall O’Brien. A particular passage stood out to her, she said: “Every Christian man and woman has an obligation to work to reconcile with those who wronged them.”
Bishop told The Daily the passage made her feel anger and indignation at first.
“My initial reaction was, ‘How can you ask this of a victim’s family member?’” she said. “You take someone’s life and you never apologize and you never show any kind of remorse, and yet it’s my job to move toward where he is.”
O’Brien and Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas who recommended the book to Bishop, taught her that a perpetual state of vengeance and retribution is not good for anyone, so she wrote a letter to Biro and now visits him in prison, she said.
“I think that our system is set up to do that,” Bishop said. “We do vengeance and retribution really well. We don’t do restoration and redemption and healing very well, and we need to have more opportunities to do that.”
The sentence of life without parole and the death sentence both tell people society is throwing them away forever, she said. Bishop hopes her book will convey the message that nobody is beyond the redemption, purpose and love of God, she added.
“We can’t throw away any person, and we are doing that too much in our criminal justice system,” Bishop said.
Bishop said the Moran Center is integrally connected to her work because it provides second chances for people who committed crimes at a young age. She feels motivated to help the center with its work, she added, because if Biro had been exposed to the kind of social work the Moran Center does, then the tragedy may have been prevented.
“I can’t bring back my family members, but I can try to prevent this from happening to another family,” Bishop said.
The Moran Center, which provides integrated legal and social work services to low-income youth in the Evanston community, defines youth as children under the age of 22. It represents children in juvenile delinquency proceedings, adult criminal proceedings and special education proceedings, and also tries to help youth rebuild their lives through social work programming and redirection services, Keenan-Devlin said.
“At the Moran Center, what we try to do is get our community, our society, to recognize that we represent children,” he said. “Children have the ability, more so than anybody else in society, to bounce back, to be rehabilitated.”
Jeff Garrett, co-owner of Bookends & Beginnings, said Bishop approached Garrett about hosting an event around the publication time of Change of Heart.
“We were delighted to do so,” Garrett said. “It’s not only a local author but a local story. Not a happy story — on the contrary — but one that still anchors us in the community.”
Weinberg junior Jessica Lewis said she attended the event because she is currently doing legal field studies.
Lewis said she wanted to hear Bishop’s story firsthand and thought it was incredible.
“I think I was one of the people who heard (Bishop’s) story and was having a tough time trying to figure out how somebody could forgive for something that horrific,” Lewis said. “Hearing it firsthand — it’s still a lot to understand and to learn more about — was really amazing, and it definitely gave me more inspiration to continue what I’m studying.”
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