Byron Merriweather was 17 when he shot a man at Miller Park during a 2003 fight between rival Twin City gangs, a crime that netted the teen 70 years in prison.
Merriweather, now 35, was in court on Friday for a new sentencing hearing ordered by the Fourth District Appellate Court. Merriweather was sentenced prior to several U.S. Supreme Court rulings and a decision by the Illinois Supreme Court on the issue of what amounts to life sentences for juveniles.
Judge Casey Costigan heard three hours of testimony—some of it emotional—from Merriweather’s family and a childhood friend who now supports Merriweather’s goal of becoming a youth counselor.
Merriweather did not testify at his 2006 trial, but on Friday he took the witness stand to answer questions about the summer night when he and other members of the Vice Lords were confronted by the Gangster Disciples.
The day started with hard liquor, consumed at several local parks, said Merriweather. After a brief encounter with the Gangster Disciples at Miller Park, Merriweather’s group left but returned an hour later. On the way, an older Vice Lord “handed me a gun” in the car, said Merriweather.
Merriweather recalled hearing “shoot, shoot,” from his friends during a brawl in which a Vice Lord was taking a beating. He fired three or four times. “I felt like it was necessary,” Merriweather said in response to questions from defense lawyer Mark Zalcman.
Merriweather struggled to control his sobbing when his lawyer asked about remorse for the shooting.
“I did it. I’m sorry but I can’t take it back. It’s something I have to deal with for the rest of my life,” said Merriweather.
Change has been difficult to achieve, said Merriweather, in his account of efforts to break away from gang membership. It was not until he was transferred from Menard to Western Correctional Center that Merriweather was successful in leaving the gang, he said.
By the time he left the gang, he had been a Vice Lord for more than 30 years.
First Assistant State’s Attorney Brad Rigdon challenged Merriweather’s assertions that he regretted the killing and took responsibility for Steven McDade’s death. When confronted with his 2008 affidavit in which he claimed someone else killed McDade, Merriweather said the claim was false.
Bertram Givan, a case manager for YouthBuild McLean County, believes his childhood friend has made significant positive changes. If released, Merriweather has something to offer at-risk youth, he said.
“His outlook has changed. He’s expressed that he’s ashamed of himself for being part of such an act,” said Givan, who said he was a Vice Lord until his early 20s.
“I do believe he deserves a second chance,” said Givan.
Changes in state law, court decisions
The second round of sentencing hearings for defendants who committed murder before they became an adult follows changes in state law as well as court decisions.
In a 2019 decision, the Illinois Supreme Court drew the line at 40 years for juveniles convicted in most murder cases, citing a high court ruling that “a prison sentence of 40 years or less imposed on a juvenile offender provides ‘some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.'"
A change in Illinois law made the 25 additional years for discharge of a firearm during a homicide discretionary for judges. Merriweather received 45 years for murder and 25 years on the firearm charge.
Former judge Ron Dozier’s sentencing of Merriweather did not take into account all the necessary factors for a juvenile offender, according to the appellate court.
“The circuit court definitely did not find the defendant was ‘the rare juvenile offender who crime reflects irreparable corruption,” as required for imposition of the lengthy sentence, said the appellate ruling in Merriweather’s case.
Lawyers for both sides will make their arguments in Merriweather’s resentencing at a March 29 hearing.