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Illinois ruling could mean early release

Published: Thursday, March 20, 2014 11:35 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, March 20, 2014 11:58 p.m. CDT

CHICAGO – Dozens of inmates serving life without parole in Illinois for murders they committed when they were juveniles were given a chance at freedom Thursday when the state Supreme Court granted them new sentencing hearings.

The 16-page opinion stemmed from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 decision that mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles were unconstitutional, and said it must be applied retroactively in Illinois.

The ruling sets up the prospect of dramatic sentencing hearings.

About 100 inmates, some of whom have been locked up for decades, will try to convince a judge they’ve been rehabilitated and deserve to be released, while families of victims will recount horrific crimes and ask their loved ones’ killers to stay behind bars.

“We have the unique opportunity where we know what their potential for rehabilitation really was 10, 20 years later,” said Shobha Mahadev, a clinical assistant professor in Northwestern University’s Children and Family Justice Center.

But victims’ families said they were horrified at the high court’s decision, because they will not only have to see the people who killed their loved ones but also face the possibility that the inmates could go free.

“It’s absolutely horrible and what’s so unfair is he’s had all his legal appeals and now this,” Dora Larson, whose 10-year-old daughter, Vicki, was raped and strangled by 15-year-old Scott Darnell in 1979. “How many chances does he get when my baby is dead forever?”

Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins’ pregnant sister and her sister’s husband were shot to death by David Biro in the basement of their Winnetka home in 1990.

Bishop-Jenkins says her family and other families will be at a disadvantage at the hearings because relatives have died or can’t be located to testify. Her father found the bodies of her sister and brother-in-law.

“My father passed away (and) we never videotaped what he saw because we didn’t want to put him through that again,” she said. “If we had known what was coming we would have done that.”

With Thursday’s decision, the Illinois Supreme Court is the latest to rule on the issue of retroactivity, agreeing with the high courts in Iowa, Massachusetts, Mississippi and Nebraska. Courts in Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Minnesota ruled against applying it retroactively, with courts in a number of other states considering the issue.

Soung said if the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office does not appeal Thursday’s ruling, her client could get a hearing sometime this summer.

The office of Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said in a statement Thursday that the ruling “brings much needed resolution on this issue.” The statement did not address if the office would appeal.

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