Illinois Media

Kids who kill

Chicago Tribune: Editorial
February 24, 2008

“The death penalty is not applied as often as it used to be, but one reason it retains more than 2-1 support among Americans is very simple: the fear that vicious murderers will someday be released from prison to kill again. The antidote to that fear is equally simple: sentencing such criminals to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Anyone who wants to abolish the death penalty, as this page does, has to be willing to assure the public that the worst murderers will never go free.

That is obviously true for adult killers. But some people would prefer that the worst teenage killers face neither death nor life in prison. A new report by the Illinois Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Children proposes that Illinois abolish such sentences for juveniles, and a bill in the legislature would do exactly that. But it would be a mistake to eliminate the option in the rare cases where it may be justified.

Currently, 103 Illinois inmates are serving life without parole for murders committed when they were younger than 18. Though the report refers to them as “children,” they were not really children when they carried out their crimes. Illinois allows life without parole in some cases for teens as young as 13, but none of the current inmates was younger than 14, and 86 percent were 16 or 17.

The slayings for which they were convicted are unusually serious ones. State law allows the sentencing of adolescents to life without parole only if the offender commits an exceptionally brutal murder, kills a police officer, prison employee, community policing volunteer or child younger than 12, or kills two or more people.

The argument against life without parole is juveniles are not mature enough to be held fully accountable for their actions. The report says they are “more likely to engage in behavior without evaluating consequences, and more likely to be susceptible to peer pressure than adults because their brains are not fully formed.” They are also said to be better candidates for rehabilitation.

All those claims may be true. But other realities argue in favor of life without parole. Consider some of the crimes that elicited these sentences. One 17-year-old kidnapped and raped a 5-year-old girl before throwing her out of a 13th-floor window. Another 17-year-old participated in a gang rape of a teenage girl, whom he and his cohorts stabbed dozens of times before repeatedly running over her with a car. Someone capable of such monstrous conduct at such a young age may be beyond any hope of rehabilitation.

Rehabilitation, in any case, is not the only point of prison. Even more important is preventing those who have preyed on their fellow citizens from doing so again. As punishment, life without parole may seem excessive. But as a protection for potential victims, it doesn’t. If the priority is protecting innocent people, life sentences are sometimes the only prudent option. They also spare the families of victims repeated parole hearings where they must relive their horror.

This is not to say there is no room for revision of the Illinois law — perhaps, say, to exclude those who are accomplices rather than actual killers, or to get rid of mandatory life sentences in favor of letting judges make the decision in particular cases.

But it would be reckless to outlaw this option. Some crimes cry out for it.”

Columns by John Kass of the Chicago Tribune on JLWOP

Real victims of child killers will never get early release

John Kass, Columnist, Chicago Tribune

February 20, 2008

The same crowd that figured crooked George Ryan was owed a Nobel Prize for his opposition to the death penalty — even though his corruption came with its own body count — is at it again.

This time — instead of trying to save the lives of murderers on Death Row while fitting puffy angel wings on Ryan’s shoulders as the former governor prepared for his corruption trial — some georgeryanistas have new victims to rescue.

Child killers.

Not just any child killers, but killers who’ve taken one or more lives while they were under 18, technically making them minors when they committed murder and now they’re in prison for life and don’t like it.

The Illinois Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Children is pushing legislation to spring these convicted murderers, to give them parole hearings after 10 years behind bars, even though they’ve already been spared a death sentence by receiving life without parole.

The coalition wants to save 103 souls — now get this — because the killers are themselves the victims. The coalition argues that the murderers’ brains weren’t fully formed when they killed, that peer pressure forced them to end a life or lives, and that life without parole is unacceptable.

The coalition has even come out with a study to bolster their point of view — that the prisoners were themselves victims of a cold and unfeeling America. They’ve got a legislative champion, State Rep. Robert Molaro, a Chicago Democrat, to carry water for these murderous victims of a callous (at least they didn’t say capitalistic) society.

There’s something not quite right about all of this. It smells.

Is this about helping an entire class of killers or just one? I don’t know. If you do, please call the Chicago Tribune and let me know.

In their report — “Categorically Less Culpable” — the georgeryanistas put together a list of victims most affected by our indifferent imprisonment of youthful murderers.

You might think the victims were people who had their lives cut short on purpose.

These include kids who had their brains blown out, or their throats cut, or were shot in the back and died in their sister’s arms or children who were raped and tossed out of windows.

Other, older victims were stalked, adults killed in their homes as they begged for their lives, the husband and the wife and their unborn child; or others, whose bodies were subjected to the invasion of the muzzle of a sawed-off shotgun.

All of these were killed by teenagers. But according to the georgeryanistas, you’d be wrong if you thought the dead are the victims.

The main victims are the killers and their families who’ve been deprived of their love and comfort.

Under the heading, “Those most affected by juvenile lifers’ crimes,” are the families of those killers. They’re listed first, above the families of the dead, which shows you where the real victims rank in the georgeryanista hierarchy.

“Those with whom we did speak told us how difficult it has been to cope with their family members’ sentences,” read the report. “Like the inmates, the family members said it was difficult to visit, because the prisons are far away.”

That’s terrible, not being able to visit as often as you wish. It’s horrifying, to have loved ones so distant, kept against their will so they can’t feel your loving embrace.

But there’s another distance too. Death.

And whether you believe as many of us do, in heaven and hell, or if you’re existential about it and think of the vast nothingness, the distance is still pretty damn far and there are no visits.

These are the real victims. And their mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers. They’re victims too.

Should some sentences be reviewed? Yes. But by established practice, not through some blanket legislation forcing the families of the dead back into court every two years for parole hearings to relive the horror.

“Children are simply less culpable than adults,” a coalition member was quoted as saying. “Because they are not yet fully formed, children are capable of change and rehabilitation and reform.”

Perhaps. But their trigger fingers are fully formed. And their knife hand. And they know it’s wrong to kill if you might get caught.

One of the killers eligible for parole under the Molaro plan is Johnny Freeman, who was three months shy of 18 when he grabbed 5-year-old Shavanna McCann at the Henry Horner Homes. He raped her and threw her from a 13-story window, as she screamed “Mama” before she fell in 1985.

In their arrogance, the georgeryanistas didn’t include interviews with the families of the murdered in their report. We’ve spoken to two of those families, and I’ll be writing a column about them soon.

“We’ll be the ones on trial, again and again, every two years,” said Ruben Pulido, whose 13-year-old son, an honor student, was murdered by a gangster on a bicycle. “Why do we have to be the ones on trial?

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Bill to free young killers suffers fatal shot of its own

John Kass, Columnist from the Chicago Tribune

March 5, 2008

To the georgeryanistas of Illinois, I have some sad news.

They were pushing a bill to grant parole hearings to 103 teen killers — meaning minors who were convicted of the most heinous murders and sentenced to life without parole.

But now, those teenage killers, growing old and impatient for freedom, have to wait.

“It’s not going to happen,” State Rep. Robert Molaro (D-Chicago), the bill’s sponsor, told me Tuesday. “The bill isn’t ready. I don’t know if it will be withdrawn or tabled. Before we do anything, we need a lengthy hearing in which victims and their families can come forward and prosecutors can have their say.

“And even then, I don’t know,” Molaro said.

The Illinois Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Children put out a report on those 103 cases, and considered the main victims to be the killers and the killers’ families, rather than the real victims, the ones who were murdered.

How do we know this?

In the coalition’s report, under the heading “Those most affected by juvenile lifers’ crimes” were the families of the killers. The families of the dead came second.

“It’s good news for us,” said Melinda Pulido, mother of Ruben Pulido, who was 13 when he and his friend Mark Lopez were shot to death while on a neighbor’s front porch in June 2000.

The killer, Robert Haynie, was 16. He rode up on a bicycle with a gun. He took orders from a gang chief, Juan Casillas, who thought the 13-year-olds were rival gang members. They weren’t. They were athletes and good students who were kept away from the streets by their parents.

I sat recently at the Pulido family’s dining-room table, with the sisters of Lopez. They showed me photographs of the boys, and they talked about how hard it had been to keep them away from gangs, and how proud they were that they had succeeded, until the boy on the bike was told to light them up.

They showed me a child’s drawing that Ruben Pulido had made. It was a mini-poster against violence, showing a street with bungalows and a chalk outline of a boy’s body on the sidewalk. It was Pulido’s block. He didn’t know the outline would be his own.

The killers on the bikes “literally blew out a bright light in this world,” said Lopez’s mother, Damaris. “God knows what he could have become. His dream was to be a lawyer, and ironically, they are the ones that are slapping him in the face.”

When I wrote the original column on this topic, the georgeryanistas were furious. They had supported the former governor’s death-penalty moratorium as he faced federal corruption charges that would land him in prison.

They were livid, accusing me of all manner of sins, human and journalistic.

Their PR spin concerned a young man convicted of murder simply for being a lookout in a crime, not the triggerman, and being sentenced to life behind bars. But we have appellate courts for such purposes. And we have another governor, perhaps also hoping to be seen as compassionate as the federal hammers begin to fall about him.

Should the killers be forgiven? Yes. If they repent.

But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be punished to the full extent of the law. I oppose the death penalty, but this bill merely makes it easier for death-penalty advocates to call for it once again.

Another death-penalty opponent is lawyer Jeanne Bishop, a Cook County public defender who worked with her sister, Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, and others on the issue. But they believe that life without parole means what it says for those who kill. They have a Web site,

Their sister, Nancy Langert, and her husband, Richard, were murdered in their home in 1990 by David Biro of Winnetka. He was 16 at the time. He stole a gun from his lawyer, broke into the Langert home and shot Richard in the head. The three shots Nancy took to the abdomen killed her unborn child. Nancy lived for about 15 minutes.

Nancy tried to drag herself toward her husband, pulled down a bookshelf, found a hatchet and banged it, hoping someone would hear, said attorney John Corbett in a 1996 civil proceeding to stop Biro from ever cashing in on the publicity by selling his story.

With her husband dead, and life leaving her own body, she scrawled a heart in her own blood on the floor, and the letter “U” and died, Corbett said.

Biro is in his 30s now. He must want freedom badly.

The group hoping to free the teen killers “sees the world as they want it to be,” said Bishop-Jenkins, “and I see the world as it is, and the world is full of irreparably dangerous people.”

And before we reach with a broad sweep that could release many of the 103, we should consider the dead and the families of the dead.

“We know the nightmare isn’t over yet,” said Priscilla Pulido, sister of a murdered brother. “There are a lot of these people supportive of the killers. But anyone willing to let a murderer free is wrong in my book, Ryanistas or any other istas.”

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Chicago Sun Times publishes our letter to the editor in response to their article about Illinois JLWOP

Justice for victims’ families?

Forcing families of murder victims through regular parole hearings for duly sentenced “juvenile lifers” only transfers the life sentence to us. These few cases were not “routine” killings; all of them were heinous and calculated multiple or aggravated murders.

Illinois eliminated parole in 1978 because it’s a discriminatory, costly and ineffective bureaucracy. The advocacy report actually confirmed that they found almost no examples of error in these 103 cases.

The “racial bias” issue has also been misunderstood because the minorities under this sentence are mostly from Cook County, which has the highest minority population of any county in the United States — 1.4 million in 2000 census. Minority representation is actually lower proportionally from Cook County than other regions in the nation where the sentence is more frequent.

Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins,


The Chicago Reporter does a story from the point of view of some teen offenders that shows the legal complications in the sentencing and in these prosecutions, especially when firearms are involved.