Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The message was plain

Today's Chicago Tribune has this article about MVFHR members Jeanne Bishop and Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, "20 years after Winnetka murder, women remain inspired by sister's dying statement":

As Nancy Bishop Langert lay dying in the basement of her Winnetka home, mortally wounded by an intruder's bullets, she found the strength for an act that even now, 20 years after her murder, continues to inspire those who knew her best.

She crawled over to a metal shelf and tipped it over. Then, with her own blood, she traced symbols onto its surface.

The characters were not perfectly formed, and lawyers would later argue over what they meant. But to Nancy's family, the message was plain: It was a heart, followed by the letter "U".

"What she clearly was saying to us is that love is the most important thing in the world," said Jennifer Bishop Jenkins, 52, one of Nancy's two sisters.

Since then, the sisters say they have tried to live up to that idea. They have spent years battling against capital punishment and for gun control, causes they believe are in keeping with their sister's final message.

The life of an activist, though, is complicated. The sisters have tasted the fury of others who have lost loved ones to murder, and they've broken with former friends over one of their causes — ensuring that juvenile killers who receive life sentences never get parole, a measure being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court.

But even in the dark times, they say, their sister's spirit continues to push them forward.

"I just feel like she's inspired me to live more courageously and do things that I hope will make this world a better place," said Jeanne Bishop, 50. "I feel like I owe that to her."

Nancy Bishop Langert was 25 on April 7, 1990, a coffee company sales rep three months pregnant with her first child. She and her husband, Richard, had returned home from dinner that night when a gunman ambushed them in their townhouse.

Nancy's father came by the next day and discovered their bodies in the basement. Richard had been shot in the neck. Nancy had been shot twice in the torso.

As police hunted for the killer, grief, media attention and investigative pressure upended the lives of Nancy's older sisters.

Jennifer Bishop Jenkins was a teacher at a Catholic high school in Kankakee, and said a workplace visit from authorities eventually cost her her job. Jeanne Bishop, then a corporate attorney, was repeatedly grilled over her human rights work in Northern Ireland (some initially speculated that the symbols left by Nancy spelled "IRA").

Finally, six months after the crime, police arrested David Biro, a senior at New Trier High School who had allegedly bragged to a friend about the murders. As reporters converged on the Winnetka police station, Bishop Jenkins recalled, one asked if she was upset that Biro's age — he was 16 at the time of the slayings — made him ineligible for the death penalty.

That question crystallized a cloud of emotion that had been swirling within her since the killings. For the first time, she was able to imagine her sister's final moments in the basement, tracing what Bishop Jenkins believed to be an unambiguous message of love.

"I realized that the thing to say (to the reporter) was the loving thing," Bishop Jenkins said. "I just shook my head and said, ‘Nancy would never want the memorial to her life to be the death of another human being.'"

At trial, Biro's attorney contended the bloody scrawl was really an attempt to spell the name of another young man who Biro claimed was the real killer. The jury didn't buy it and took only two hours to find Biro guilty. A judge sentenced him to life in prison with no chance of parole.

With the case concluded, Nancy's sisters took up transformed lives. Bishop Jenkins, whose activism had been limited to writing letters for Amnesty International, spoke about her anti-death-penalty beliefs at churches and schools. She soon joined organizations that crusaded for its end.

Read the rest.

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