The Illinois Supreme Court decided on March 20, 2014 that inmates that are currently serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for homicides they committed as minors will now be granted new sentencing hearings. There are currently about 100 convicts that will receive a chance at being freed when they were originally handed mandatory life sentences for their crimes.
The decision comes two years after the United States Supreme Court determined that required life sentences without the possibility of parole violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Because a teenager’s brain is still being formed and growing until they reach their mid-twenties, they do not necessarily possess the wherewithal that adults do that perhaps make them stand down to pressure from their peers, if that is what they believed “pushed” them to commit these awful crimes.
At the sentencing hearings, inmates will be permitted to present evidence in an attempt to get their sentences reduced or possibly freed. They will be allowed to present evidence having to do with the conditions in which they grew up that could have contributed to their acts of violence as adolescents (if a convict grew up in a rough neighborhood with parents that were drug addicts, for instance). They will also be able to show their progress in prison through their participation in rehabilitation programs. Some of the inmates believe that evidence has surfaced since their conviction (most of them happened in late 1980s and early 1990s) that proves their innocence. Some were sentenced to life without parole for being an accomplice to a murder but not actually committing the crime, and some were even involved in gang-related crimes. Though prosecutors can still push for the life sentences that were originally imposed, the judge will be deciding if any of them deserve a chance at one day being free.
Among those given new sentencing hearings are some of the state’s most known brutal killers including Christopher Churchill, who in 1998, at the age of 16 killed his half-brother and his girlfriend along with her three children (all under the age of 12) with a hammer, in addition to having sex with some of the victims as they were dying, including the one of the children. David Biro is also among the list; at the age of 16, he coerced a pregnant woman and her husband into their basement and shot them as they begged for their lives.
For families of the victims, however, the idea of their loved one’s killer walking free could be something they did not ever want to see happen after they felt justice had already been done. Offering these convicted killers a chance at parole, or even outright freedom raises the question that though the court recognizes that the inmates were still “developing” mentally at the time of their crimes, could they have still possess a trait that could make them commit such a crime again? The judge will decide who deserves a chance at freedom, if it is determined that their original sentences for their crimes were “too harsh.”