On anniversary of slaying, sisters’ activism is as strong as ever
By John Keilman, Tribune reporter, Chicago Tribune
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.
Jeanne Bishop, who left her career in corporate law to become a Cook County public defender, made similar alliances. The sisters also lent their time, energy and modest name recognition to groups pushing for stricter handgun laws.
Bishop Jenkins "was just relentless in a positive way about trying to make sure the same thing doesn't happen to other families," said Becca Knox of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, where Bishop Jenkins worked from 2005 to 2009. "She just was a force of nature, combined with an open heart."
Knox said that while gun control is a harshly divisive subject, those who have lost loved ones to murder aren't afraid of the confrontation and name-calling that can come with the territory.
"They can withstand the abuse," she said. "They're not going to back down or be intimidated."
But the sisters' beliefs have been tested. Jeanne Bishop said she was an emotional wreck after facing the anger of some murder victims' families during the 2002 clemency hearings that preceded then-Gov. George Ryan's decision to commute all Illinois death sentences.
And four years ago, Bishop Jenkins grew estranged from some of her anti-death-penalty allies when they supported a bill to offer parole hearings to inmates who had received life sentences as juveniles –– a group that included the killer of her sister.
"It is a monumentally unfair thing to do to tell a family that a guy is serving life and then change that," said Bishop Jenkins, who joined the effort that defeated the bill.
The sisters went on to co-found the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers, which has lobbied against similar parole-granting efforts elsewhere. In November, Bishop Jenkins attended oral arguments for a U.S. Supreme Court case that is challenging the constitutionality of juvenile life sentences. A decision is expected within the next few months.
Bishop Jenkins' advocacy gradually led her into politics. She is running for a seat on the Cook County Board, and though her Web site mentions the crime that propelled her into public life, it focuses more on her vow to trim the sales tax and the size of county government.
Jeanne Bishop, meanwhile, continues her work against capital punishment. On Wednesday, the anniversary date she normally spends at her sister's grave, she plans to speak at a death-penalty panel discussion in Dallas.
She didn't want to go at first. But then she thought of Nancy and changed her mind.
"I can't think of a better way to honor her than to be there, and to speak for life and against death," she said.