After courts order new sentence, Cook County prisoner given 39 years for murder committed as youth

In April, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that sentences of more than 40 years without the chance of parole for crimes committed by youthful offenders are unconstitutional if their age is not taken into consideration at sentencing.

Monday, faced with an order that he resentence a prisoner originally sentenced to 100 years for a murder he committed as a teenager, Cook County Circuit Judge Kenneth J. Wadas resentenced the man to 39 years.

In making his ruling, Wadas said that there was no doubt that Benard McKinley had rehabilitative potential, but found that the shooting was “heartless and merciless.” Though he was 16 when the crime occurred, Wadas said, “the gun made him older.”

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Roughly 15 years ago, Cook County jurors found McKinley guilty in the killing of 23-year-old Abdo Serna-Ibarra at a park on Chicago’s Northwest Side. Serna-Ibarra was on his way to play soccer with friends when, after an altercation erupted with a group of teens, McKinley shot Serna-Ibarra.

A 15-year-old on a bicycle had given McKinley the order to shoot, according to court records.

Benard McKinley. Illustration by Abby Blachman.

Since McKinley’s 2004 trial, courts and legislatures nationwide have undergone a shift in the way juvenile offenders who commit serious crimes are dealt with. Bolstered by scientific research indicating that brains continue to develop into ones early 20s, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 ruled that automatic life terms for juveniles are unconstitutional because they do not allow judges to consider the features of youth, like poor decision making and failure to understand consequences.

In January 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed McKinley’s 100 year sentence, finding that it amounted to a certain death sentence and that Wadas had not adequately considered McKinley’s age.

The first day of the resentencing hearing was held in April. Over the course of two days, McKinley’s attorneys put on several witnesses, including an expert on adolescent brain development, correctional officers and McKinley’s undergraduate professors from DePaul University and Northwestern University.

During the roughly 18 years McKinley has been incarcerated, he obtained his GED, worked several jobs within the prison, and enrolled at Northwestern University, which offers a bachelor’s degree program within Stateville Correctional Center where McKinley is serving time.

“He is not the person he used to be,” Karl Leonard, McKinley’s attorney, said during closing arguments.

Leonard said that of the 46 cases in which defendants have been resentenced since the 2012 Supreme Court ruling banning automatic life sentences for juveniles, the average new sentence was 31 years. Most of those instances were for defendants convicted of two or more murders. Of the cases in which one individual was killed, defendants were resentenced on average to serve 25.2 years, he said, and asked the judge to consider that sentence for McKinley.

Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney Shelley Keane said in closing arguments that she could not deny that McKinley had done a lot with himself during his years of incarceration. Due to the facts of the crime, she said, the state asked that McKinley be sentenced to a substantial amount of time above the 20 year minimum.

Wadas noted that it was unlikely McKinley would commit another crime, but said it was still important that the sentence deter future criminal conduct.

Back in 2004, at McKinley’s original sentencing, Wadas said the 100 year sentence was necessary to deter others from committing the same crime, adding that he hoped Chicagoans would be able to go to parks and enjoy themselves with “one less Benard McKinley out there with a handgun blowing them away.”

Injustice Watch first reported on McKinley’s case in May 2018 in chronicling the more than 160 juvenile offenders sentenced to serve more than 50 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections.

The Illinois legislature in recent years passed two laws that allow juvenile offenders tried in adult court to be treated with more leniency. A 2016 law allows judges to decline to impose mandatory gun enhancements for juveniles. And earlier this year, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law a bill that affords some new offenders who were under 21 years old when their crimes were committed periodic parole opportunities.