Why should Illinois release Renaldo Hudson?
After all, he committed a ghastly, unprovoked murder — stabbed a 72-year-old man some 60 times then set his victim's bed on fire to try to cover his tracks — and was on death row until 2003 when former Gov. George Ryan commuted the sentences of all the state's condemned prisoners.
It's a question the Illinois Prisoner Review Board will wrestle with Tuesday when attorneys and other advocates for Hudson come before the board to plead for his release.
Because he's already served nearly 30 years. That's the equivalent of a 60-year sentence in the 1980s, when the reported normal sentence for murder was 40 years (just 20 behind bars with the "good time" bonus).
Because he was 19 when he hatched the plot to pose as a repairman to enter the apartment of retired carpenter Folke Petersen and rob him of the $1 million he fantasized Petersen had stashed away. When Petersen fought back, Hudson went berserk. Research shows that impulse control is often lacking in teenage brains, and while that's no excuse for criminal behavior, it does mitigate the offense in the rearview mirror.
Because his childhood was relentlessly traumatic. His parents abandoned him and his siblings, he watched his stepbrother beat and kill his twin brother and was himself shot when his brother went on a rampage and killed his aunt and cousin, according to the Dickensian account in his clemency petition. He dropped out of school in the sixth grade and became a child of the streets, a drug abuser constantly in trouble for gang activity.
Because Hudson has repeatedly and pointedly expressed remorse. In his recent, 13-page handwritten letter to Gov. Pat Quinn, Hudson referred to his crime as "horrific," "shameful," "monstrous" and "horrendous."
Because he's a changed man — a model prisoner with, his attorneys say, a spotless disciplinary record since 1994 when he underwent a religious conversion and became one of those prison preachers determined to help others.
A familiar tale of woe as told by a bleeding heart? Well, yes. I shared most of these facts when I introduced readers to Hudson nearly 11 years ago. And I was skeptical when his friends and supporters recently asked me to cover his new bid for freedom.
I'm all about rehabilitation, but I'm also a realist. Quinn is facing a tough re-election fight next year and is unlikely to risk the political fallout of releasing an admitted killer, no many how many asterisks attach to his name.
Yet I'm writing about Hudson again.
Because in the last decade he's redoubled his efforts at personal redemption, earning a high school equivalency degree in 2006 and a college associate degree in 2008, graduating from a community college program in substance-abuse counseling in 2012 and becoming certified as a literacy tutor.
Because he initiated an essay contest among Illinois prisoners asking them to address the question "Who am I and what can I do to be better?" It resulted in the 2004 book "Lockdown Prison Heart," proceeds from which were donated to the families of murder victims.
Because he's now housed at a medium-security prison. His lawyers contend this is nearly unheard of for lifers and is testimony to his trustworthiness and good behavior. The Illinois Department of Corrections would not comment on Hudson's record but confirmed that "only a handful" of lifers are in medium security.
Because Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins is among those supporting his release. Bishop-Jenkins, director of IllinoisVictims.org, is an active supporter of life-without-parole sentences and arguably the most prominent supporter of crime victims' rights in Illinois.
Her involvement stems from the April 1990 slaying of her pregnant sister, Nancy Langert, and Nancy's husband, Richard, in their Winnetka town house. And though Bishop-Jenkins and her sister Jeanne Bishop became prominent opponents of the death penalty, Bishop-Jenkins has never gone to bat for a prisoner — until now.
"Renaldo is the most outstanding, extraordinary inmate in the entire system," said Bishop-Jenkins, who has visited him many times in prison over the years and will testify on his behalf Tuesday. "He's become as good and as Christian a man as I've ever met in my life."
Because she and several others who've written to Gov. Quinn have expressed their willingness to have Hudson move in with them and their families should he be released.
Because if we believe at all in rehabilitation and earthly redemption — if our misty evocations of the power of change, the majesty of forgiveness and the necessity of second chances are anything more than empty rhetoric — then we must release Renaldo Hudson.
Comment on redemption at chicagotribune.com/zorn.