An Illinois man who was resentenced last year to spend 39 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections for a murder he committed as a 16-year-old had his prison term reduced to 25 years by a panel of appellate court judges last week.
In the opinion, authored by Appellate Court Judge Maureen E. Connors and joined by judges Mary L. Mikva and John C. Griffin, the court took the rare step of amending Benard McKinley’s sentence. The opinion states that the trial court judge had not properly considered McKinley’s age and had disregarded the “overwhelming” evidence of the teen offender’s rehabilitation.
“[McKinley] is the epitome of an offender who has been restored to useful citizenship. His sentence, however, does not reflect this,” the opinion states.
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In 2004, Cook County jurors convicted McKinley of first-degree murder for the 2001 shooting death of 23-year-old Abdo Serna-Ibarra near a park on Chicago’s Northwest Side. Serna-Ibarra had been on his way to play soccer with friends when a scuffle erupted with a group of teens.
Another youth, a 15-year-old on a bicycle, had ordered McKinley to shoot, according to court records.
Cook County Judge Kenneth J. Wadas sentenced the teen to 100 years in prison for the murder at McKinley’s original sentencing hearing. Wadas explained at the time that the punishment would deter others from committing similar crimes and allow Chicagoans to enjoy parks with “one less Benard McKinley out there with a handgun blowing them away.”
McKinley, 35, has served roughly 19 years of his sentence and is currently imprisoned at the Stateville Correctional Center.
In the years since, courts and legislatures nationwide have undergone a dramatic shift in how they handle juvenile offenders who commit serious crimes. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that automatic life terms for juveniles are unconstitutional because they don’t give judges the discretion to consider young people’s underdeveloped decision-making skills and ability to weigh long-term 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 death sentence and that Wadas had not adequately considered McKinley’s age.
Last spring, just before McKinley was resentenced, the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously determined that a sentence of more than 40 years for a juvenile offender constitutes the equivalent of a life term, triggering additional sentencing protections.
Attorneys presented a slew of evidence at the resentencing hearing last year showing McKinley had been rehabilitated in the nearly two decades he has already spent in custody. McKinley obtained his GED, enrolled in Northwestern University’s bachelor degree program offered at Stateville, held several jobs in the prison, and stayed out of trouble, according to court records and testimony.
In June, Wadas resentenced McKinley to 39 years in prison. Wadas acknowledged McKinley’s rehabilitative strides but argued that the murder was “merciless” and that the use of a gun “made him older.” Wadas also said McKinley’s sentence should stand to deter others from committing similar crimes and that peer pressure was “irrelevant” in this case because McKinley chose to be the aggressor.
The appellate court wrote that Wadas improperly discredited the role peer pressure had played in the shooting and wrongly considered other factors of the crime like the use of a firearm. The court also criticized Wadas’ finding that McKinley’s sentence could deter others in light of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that note deterrence has limited effects on juveniles.
“The fact that [McKinley] used a gun certainly did not cancel out the characteristics that defined him as a juvenile,” the opinion states. “Rather, it lends support to the fact that defendant lacked maturity which led to recklessness and heedless risk taking.”
In the past six years, Wadas has been reversed 25 times by the Illinois Appellate Court, an Injustice Watch investigation found earlier this year.