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Teen Sentenced to 100 Years In Prison Heads to Law School

Uplifting News

16-Year-Old Sentenced to 100 Years in Prison Heads to Law School

On the day he entered prison, Benard McKinley vowed to better himself. He did it.

On June 24, 2001, 23-year-old Abdo Serna-Ibarra was on his way to play soccer with some friends. He never made it. Instead, he got into a fight with a gang of teenagers in a nearby Chicago park.

Mistaking him for a rival gang member, the last words he heard came from the lips of a 15-year-old ordering his friend to “Shoot him!”

A Teenager Receives a 100-Year Sentence Without Parole

man in white t-shirt standing in front of windowman in white t-shirt standing in front of windowPhoto by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash

Benard McKinley, 16 years old at the time, was arrested for Abdo’s murder. Three years later a jury found him guilty and the presiding judge sentenced him to a staggering 100 years in prison. Without parole.

At just 19 years old, Benard’s life of freedom was over. As far as he knew, he would spend the rest of his time behind bars.

On his way to the maximum security Stateville Prison, he made himself a vow. Despite his grim circumstances and a century-long sentence, he swore he wouldn’t let his new reality define him.

“I promised myself before I got out of that bus that no matter what the outcome was that, you know, I was just going to try to do better for myself.”

Benard McKinley via ABC NEWS

​He was true to his word. For the next 20 years, Benard was the epitome of a model inmate in one of the most “violent” and “inhumane” prisons in the country.

He obtained his GED and a paralegal diploma, was one of 40 inmates selected out of 400 to enroll in Northwestern University's Bachelor's degree program (via Northwestern's Prison Education Program, PEP), held several jobs in prison, AND stayed out of trouble.

Along the way, he became interested in the law and spent hours poring over law books. As he became more familiar with the law, he repeatedly petitioned the courts to have his sentence appealed.

He received denial after denial. Benard kept fighting.

From Thug Life and Prison to Law School

Benard McKinley walking through the Arch of Northwestern University

Benard McKinley walking through the Arch of Northwestern University

Francesco Thorik-Saboia/The Daily Northwestern

Finally, in 2020, Benard found his redemption. In a rare case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit threw out his original 100-year sentence. Deeming it unconstitutional to hand out life sentences to juveniles, it reduced his sentence to 25 years.

In the fall of 2023, Benard, along with 15 other prisoners, graduated university with a Bachelor of Science degree in Social Sciences. But he wasn't done yet. Benard had big dreams. He became the first incarcerated person in Illinois history to take the Law School Admission Test. He passed.

In December 2023, after serving 22.5 years, Benard walked out of the prison gates and marched through the arch of Northwestern University. Literally the SAME DAY as per The Daily Northwestern.

Benard partook in the age-old tradition, "March Through the Arch" — a symbolic gesture of the beginning and the end of their university experience for incoming freshmen and graduating seniors.

For Benard, however, marching through The Arch symbolized more than just his academic journey — it symbolized his freedom. Dozens of his classmates and professors showed up and cheered him on.

"Five years ago, I would have never thought that right now, I’d be walking down the Evanston community coming from Northwestern University, as a Northwestern graduate on my way to law school. It’s a hell of a feeling.”

Making Amends and Giving Back to the Community He Hurt as a Teenager

A man standing at a podium wearing a graduation cap and gown.

Bernard McKinley during his commencement as part of the Northwestern Prison Education Program at Stateville correctional center

Monika Wnuk/Northwestern Prison Education Program

Officially accepted into Northwestern's prestigious Pritzker School of Law on March 15, Benard starts law school in the Fall. Until then, he is working as a paralegal and a researcher at Northwestern University and living in transitional housing.

After graduation in 2027, he plans to become a civil rights attorney and wants to open a nonprofit legal clinic to support marginalized communities.

He believes that education saved his life and hopes his story inspires others to make positive changes in their own lives.

"Not only do I want to help at-risk youth understand their potential, but I also want to help educate those who don’t believe that people who commit horrible acts can change their lives in a positive way,” he told the Washington Post.

Benard is proof that everyone deserves a second chance. Even those that society first deems irredeemable. Against nearly impossible odds and a whopping 100-year sentence, Benard refused to let his worst mistake define who he was or who he could eventually become.

He is a powerful reminder that no matter how dire the circumstances may seem, it is never too late to turn one's life around.

“From the day after I committed that horrible act, I was focused on bettering myself because I wasn’t my worst mistake.”

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