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Activist, Author Jeanne Bishop Shares Story of Sister's Murder and her own "Change of Heart"

Jeanne Bishop
Author Jeanne Bishop spoke about her sister's murder and restorative justice at Drake University in Des Moines

Jeanne Bishop remembers the last night she saw her younger sister alive in 1990 as one of the happiest for her family. They had gathered in Chicago to celebrate the news that Nancy and her husband Richard were going to become parents. Nancy was three months pregnant.

That night, after returning to their townhouse in Winnetka, Nancy and Richard were murdered by a local teen. It was a robbery gone wrong. Richard was shot once in the back of the head, and Nancy was shot multiple times in the abdomen. Nancy and Jeanne's father found the pair dead in their basement the next morning. 

Police had almost nothing to go on. Six months later, they arrested a 16-year-old boy who lived just blocks away after a friend tipped off police. David Biro had bragged of the crime. A .357 magnum found under Biro's bed was a ballistic match to the bullets found in Nancy's body. It was next to the glass cutters used to break in through the couple's sliding glass door.

Jeanne Bishop wrote about her experience with restorative justice in "Change of Heart."

Bishop says she was shocked that the skinny kid she saw at the trial was capable of overpowering two, much larger adults. Then she realized all he needed was that gun.

"All he had to do was point it at them and they were helpless."

Biro was found guilty and faced a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Bishop remembers her mother saying they never had to see him again, and thinking that was good. 

But there was no closure for Bishop.

"Every Christmas, every birthday, every holiday when there's an empty seat at the table, I will always miss her. That ache will always be there, and that love for her will always be there, accompanied by that grief. I don't want to close that, even if I could."

Then, Bishop had a change of heart. What resulted was a career change, a journey towards restorative justice and a book, Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy and Making Peace with my Sister's Killer. In this edition of River to River, Bishop talks with host Ben Kieffer.

Bishop left a job as a corporate attorney to become a public defender. She started reading about the death penalty, and decided she was opposed to it. She told herself it was about mercy. But then she found herself wondering how merciful it was to sentence a young person to life in prison with no possibility for parole? To her, it seemed like telling a juvenile that no matter what they did, how remorseful they were, or how much they changed over the rest of their life, it didn't matter.

Then, David Biro became eligible for re-sentencing in 2012, after a supreme court ruling outlawed mandatory life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders. While speaking with a mentor, Bishop said she wasn't sure how she felt about that, considering Biro was not remorseful. And her mentor asked how she knew that he wasn't?

Jeanne Bishop in the Cook County law library

So Bishop wrote to Biro in prison. She told him she had forgiven him, and apologized for telling "everyone but the most important person, him." She got a 15 page letter in return. In it, Biro confessed to the crime and said he would take it back if he could. With his appeals process pending, he gave her a handwritten confession.

The two went on to meet. Biro provided Bishop with details of the crime that, "meant everything." Biro told her that quiet Richard had never stopped trying to find a way that his wife and baby could be saved. "I had imagined that the last moments of her life were like a horror movie -- just fear, pain, misery, horror. And to know that she was surrounded by that love at the end..."

Bishop still visits Biro in prison. She says that as the relationship began, restorative justice was a foreign concept to her. Now she's a passionate advocate. She says it was only through meeting with Biro that she was able to make him see her sister as more than a stranger in the dark. He recently told her, "The more I get to know you, and Nancy and Richard through you, the worse I feel about what I did."

Bishop says that's all he really has to offer. 

"All he can do is grasp the enormity of what he took, show sincere remorse and try to live as honorable a life as he can."

Bishop says she doesn't claim to speak for all victims. She doesn't pretend the choices she's made are easy. She says it's her own path of faith and conscience. And it's a journey Bishop's older sister doesn't support.

"She doesn't want to accept that he could change. It disrupts her narrative that he's this remorseless monster."

But, Bishop says her family has decided their love has to overcome everything. They don't want to lose anyone else.

Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River
Katherine Perkins is IPR's Program Director for News and Talk