WINNETKA – Like an exercise regimen, forgiveness needs to be practiced daily.
“Sometimes the forces of anger or bitterness want to pull you back like a riptide,” says Jeanne Bishop, whose sister and brother-in-law were murdered by David Biro in 1990 when he was a student at New Trier High School. “So it’s really important to know that this is not a one-time only deal where you have to do all of it, all at once. I compare it to waking up in the morning and going to a little gym at the Winnetka Community House. I get on the treadmill and then pick up a barbell, and I’m getting stronger every day. Forgiveness is like that.”
The journey to forgiveness not only has changed Jeanne’s heart, it has transformed the way she views her work as an assistant public defender in the Office of Cook County Public Defender. (Cook County has the largest unified court system in the world, the largest public defender office in the country, and houses the largest U.S. jail with 9,000 prisoners.)
In her role as an attorney, Jeanne never has to wait in line to meet with her client in prison. She walks into a private room for discussion with the prisoner she’s representing and has no time limit set on their meeting.
“When I go to visit David Biro in prison, I’m not going as a lawyer visiting a client,” Jeanne says. “I go there as any other civilian person and experience the same indignities of waiting, the way that you’re searched, and talking through a hole in the glass.”
“It’s good for me to see what the families and loved ones of my clients go through to maintain their relationships with them while they are in custody,” she says. “I see up close all the things that prisoners yearn for and need and don’t have.”
Those things are experiences that those of us on the outside take for granted: Connecting with other human beings, exploring and navigating the world, and breathing in nature, among many other privileges.
And why should anyone care how prisoners are treated behind bars even though locking them up is firmly believed to be for the safety of those of us obeying laws and therefore living freely?
Here’s the reason: “Some 95% of our prisoners are going to be getting out someday,” Jeanne says. “But the way that we treat them in prison is foolish and counterproductive as well as inhumane. To deny them access to education and job training, and the kind of counseling that would help them be more suited to come out in the world and be productive, peaceful citizens — it makes no sense.”
Juveniles, like David Biro when he was convicted of murder as a teenager, are in a different category of offenders. “They are still forming their characters, their personalities, and their thought processes,” Jeanne explains. “They’re particularly susceptible to be rehabilitated to change, to grasp what they did wrong, and try to redirect their lives.” Indeed, in June of 2012, Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court struck the gavel holding that mandatory sentences of life without parole was unconstitutional for juveniles.
But the question remains open for Jeanne about David Biro. He was a child of privilege, raised in Winnetka, who wore no glaring yoke of poverty and violence, which often accompanies teenage crime.
“He was sentenced for a double-murder of two adults, Richard and Nancy, who was three months pregnant with what would have been their first child,” Jeanne explains. “Because that was a mandatory sentence, there were no aggravation and mitigation proceedings where we could have learned anything about David Biro from a psychologist, psychiatrist, teachers, guidance counselor, neighbors, or anybody who could have shed light on who he was, why he might have done this, and what we think was wrong with him. We didn’t learn any of that.”
Biro’s heartless violence shocked and stunned everyone around him. A passage from “People Magazine,” November 12, 1990, states, “Biro’s arrest has bewildered the community and left everyone, including the police, wondering why a child of privilege might have committed such a crime.”
Biro has filed a petition, according to Jeanne, to again have his day in court, and the outcome could be the same. “A judge could hear all of this information and re-sentence him to life without parole,” Jeanne says. “Biro understands that he’s still facing that and being re-sentenced to something less than that is a long shot because he was a child who grew up in privilege. Unlike people who grew up in a childhood of trauma, abuse, poverty, and crime, he did not. And he took the lives of three people. He understands that’s going to be a difficult case to make.”
With that being said, Jeanne still continues along her path to forgiveness and encourages others to follow her. She wishes there were more chances within the criminal justice system for crime victims and offenders to even begin the process of reconciling.
“Here and there, there are restorative justice programs, to give victims and offenders a chance to meet and talk after the sentences have been handed down,” Jeanne says. “I wish that we would increase those opportunities a hundred fold because the process of forgiveness has been so healing for me, and many other people who’ve participated in it find it healing too. They find it healing to hear, ‘I’m sorry’ directly from the lips of the person who hurt them. And the person who hurt them finds it transformative to hear words of forgiveness.”
These days, Jeanne is inspired by the spirit of forgiveness that her father, also a lawyer, wrote about in his signature neat block print handwriting on a yellow legal pad that Jeanne’s mother, Joyce Bishop, found earlier this year. Before he passed away in 2003, M. Lee Bishop, a former Marine, had written about reconciling with those who have hurt us the most.
“A few months ago, my mom was cleaning out an old file cabinet and found these notes that my father had written from a talk that he’d given at a confirmation class at Kenilworth Union Church, which is the church where my sister and her husband were married and where they are now buried in the garden,” Jeanne says.
“My father said in these notes that forgiveness is really two parts. The first part is letting go of justifiable anger over what happened to you, but the second part is the letting in of that person who hurt you,” she continues.
When asked if perhaps it’s the spirit of her father who shone a light guiding her in this direction more than a decade later, Jeanne says, “It absolutely is! It was such an epiphany for me to read these words in my father’s handwriting on a legal pad on this amazing concept that it took me so long to discover.”