Of Christ, a Killer, and Opposition to the Death Penalty

Author uses story of sister's murder to make faith-based argument for mercy.

Nancy Langert watched the killer put a gun to the back of her husband's head and pull the trigger. Huddled in a corner, Nancy lifted her arms to her head when the gun swung toward her. Two shots ripped into her pregnant belly. The killer fled.

Nancy lived for 15 more minutes, dragging herself to a shelf in the basement of her home and banging on it with a heavy tool. Nobody heard. She dragged herself by the elbows again, over to her husband. Next to his body Nancy used her own blood to leave a dying declaration: the shape of a heart and the letter "u."

Love you.

Twenty-five years later, Nancy's sister Jeanne Bishop has written a book about the murders, the murderer, and the power of forgiveness. More broadly, Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy, and Making Peace With My Sister's Killer is a faith-based argument against the death penalty.

Polls suggests that a solid but shrinking majority of Americans support the death penalty for convicted murders. According to Gallup, the justification most often provided by death-penalty supporters is biblically rooted: "An eye for an eye/they took a life/fits the crime."

Bishop's faith was tested by the murders of her sister, her brother-in-law, and their unborn child. "I had built up a steam of anger and indignation at God for allowing this senseless slaughter." She found little comfort in the conviction of the teenage killer, David Biro, or his sentence of life without parole. "Somehow," writes the criminal defense attorney and activist, "it didn't seem enough."

So she forgave Biro, sort of. "It was the kind of forgiveness that wiped him off my hands like dirt. My forgiveness was not for David, who had gone through his arrest and trial without once taking responsibility or expressing remorse. He had not asked for forgiveness; he did not deserve it," she writes. "My forgiveness was for God, for Nancy, and for me."

That revelation comes early in in the book because Bishop's real work awaited: Confronting Biro, embracing the true meaning of faith and mercy and grace, and converting her anger into activism against the death penalty and juvenile life-without-parole sentences.

Her journey began when she met Minnesota law professor Mark Osler, who had written a book, Jesus on Death Row, challenging the death penalty based on the experience of Christ as a defendant. A former federal prosecutor, Osler is a prominent opponent of the death penalty and an advocate for clemency and drug-sentencing reform. (Disclosure: Osler is a friend of mine.)

Bishop read Osler's book and started working with him on an extraordinary series of mock trials. He prosecuted Christ, and sought the death penalty. She defended Christ, and argued for mercy. The jury and witnesses were drawn from audiences around the country, most often in conservative churches where the death penalty is popular.

Slowly, Bishop reached a disturbing conclusion: We are all murderers. We are all responsible for the death of Christ. We all crucified him.

"David Biro had broken into the home of a happy young couple and killed their dreams when he killed them. His acts were evil. What connection could there between him and Jesus, the Prince of Peace?" she writes. "And yet, I knew Osler was right: Jesus was asking me—all of us—to see the face of David Biro in the face of Christ himself."

Bishop eventually visited her sister's killer in prison. Biro described the crime and explained to her what he was thinking when he pulled the trigger. "I just wanted to finish it."

There is no Hollywood happy ending to her story. Biro has confessed to his crime and apologized. He cannot give Bishop back the lives of her loved ones. Restorative justice may be too much to ask, even for an activist like Bishop. But there can be mercy.

"Christ, after all, was killed unjustly, but offered us—his killers—grace even in that moment," she writes. "Maybe, to follow him, it is restorative mercy we must seek."

Biro was one month short of his 17th birthday when he committed the murders that led to a life-without-parole sentence. "I believed in that sentence when he received it," Bishop told me via email. "I don't anymore. It is merciless: It tells people who committed the crime at a very young age that no matter how sorry they are, how rehabilitated they become, we will never let them out. We will never even take a second look at their sentence. They will die in prison."