“Are you a real lawyer or are you a public defender?”
This is a question that I hear repeatedly at court as a private defense attorney, and it comes loaded with implications. Anybody who is a veteran of criminal law practice knows that public defenders are real lawyers, and that private attorneys often scurry to seek out their advice.
Jeanne Bishop is one of the very best public defenders in Cook County. She recently published Change of Heart, a personal memoir based on her searing experiences within the criminal justice system. I generally advise young attorneys to turn off the TV, drop the smartphone, and read books. Especially books about topics other than the law. For once, here is a story of the legal system that has volumes to say about justice and personal courage.
As a young student, Jeanne volunteered years ago to help fight egregious human rights violations against the people of Northern Ireland. At the time, she was a young attorney with an exceptional background, boundless possibilities, and a stable family life. Then Jeanne’s sister Nancy and her husband were murdered in their home, along with Nancy’s unborn child. Since the murder had happened in a wealthy town and nothing of value seemed to be missing, a frantic investigation was launched. The FBI intervened, outlandishly suggesting that the murders might be linked to Jeanne’s civil rights work in Ireland.
Unbelievably, Jeanne was investigated by the FBI. Allegations that she was obstructing investigators aired recklessly in the media as her depression over Nancy’s murder deepened. While this investigation is briefly noted in the book, Jeanne shows little interest in recounting her own mistreatment at the hands of media and law enforcement. Then the case broke wide open. A young informant led police to David Biro, a troubled local high school student.
The murder weapon was found in Biro’s room, along with scribblings that implied his guilt for the murders. Eventually, Biro was sentenced to life in prison as a juvenile defender. Meanwhile, Jeanne had left a lucrative job with a corporate firm to work as a public defender. As a long-time advocate against the death penalty, she began questioning the propriety of life sentences for young offenders. After intense soul-searching, she decided she had to meet her sister’s killer. What follows may surprise many readers.
A lesser writer might have crafted a profoundly different book out of these horrendous experiences. The brutal elements of the story are not minimized, but sensationalism and self-pity are absent from these pages.
This is a story of justice, the abuse of justice, and the power of forgiveness. Many will disagree with some of Jeanne Bishop’s conclusions, and some will suggest that her religious faith has blinded her. In truth, here is a work of profound vision. The words are etched from pain, but they recount an inspiring act of mercy. This is an unforgettable story.
Jeanne Bishop’s book, Change of Heart, is published by WJK books. Visit www.wjkbooks.com.
If you have questions about Illinois criminal law, please contact Matt Keenan at 847-568-0160 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Besides Skokie, Matt Keenan also serves the communities of Arlington Heights, Chicago, Deerfield, Des Plaines, Evanston, Glenview, Morton Grove, Mount Prospect, Niles, Northbrook, Park Ridge, Rolling Meadows, Wilmette and Winnetka.)