Category Archives: Mary Ellen Johnson

News Story About Jacob Ind on Colorado Springs KKTV 11

I’ve posted a number of Jacob Ind’s essays on serving life without the possibility of parole. KKTV Channel 11 in Colorado Springs aired a story yesterday on the Jacob Ind case and asked their viewers the question, should juveniles who commit murders before the age of 18 be sentenced to life without parole.

It’s interesting to note that the judge in Jacob Ind’s case felt the sentence was too harsh and although the Colorado Attorney General felt that Jacob Ind and Gabriel Adams’ cases should have been tried in adult court, he would not have been opposed to sentencing them to prison terms that afforded the possibility of parole.

Colorado stopped sentencing juveniles to LWOP in 2006, but the change was not made retroactive for the 46 juveniles sentenced to LWOP in Colorado prior to the change.

The news broadcast can be seen here.

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National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers

Several weeks ago, I spoke with Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins of Illinois.victims.org after she commented on a post I’d done that she felt had portrayed murder victims’ families as vengeful.

That hadn’t been my intent, but after speaking with Jennifer, I realized that my reference to victims’ families in the post had been insensitive.

My stated purpose for the creation of this blog is to create a dialogue, but doing so has proven easier said than done.

I realized that with very few exceptions, there was no conduit for meaningful dialogue between the advocates for eliminating the sentence of Juvenile Life without the Possibility of Parole and the living victims of those inmates serving LWOP for crimes committed as juveniles. Continue reading

What I Learned in Supermax, a Guest Post from Mary Ellen Johnson

Mary Ellen Johnson met Jacob Ind a few months after he killed his parents at age 15. She’s the director of The Pendulum Foundation, which serves kids serving life. She alternately thanks and curses Jacob for providing entree into a world she never knew existed.

“Something went horribly wrong.”

Jacob’s letter arrived a week after Limon Correctional Facility had been abruptly locked down. Continue reading

From Inside Supermax: Part 1 of 8

As I became interested in the cases of the juveniles sentenced to Life Without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP) in Colorado, I began studying the cases of the 46 juveniles still serving this sentence (the State of Colorado changed the law in 2006 and no longer sentences juveniles to LWOP; however, the bill changing the law did not allow retroactivity to be extended to the 46). I could not do this without learning about their crimes and their victims and the truth is, this is difficult to do and not feel pain all the way around. The first case I began studying was that of Jacob Ind. I lived in Colorado Springs, the nearest city to Woodland Park where at the age of 15, Jacob Ind murdered his mother and step-father. This happened in late 1992 and in our small city, the story was constantly on the television and in the paper. Jacob’s age, the circumstances of the crime and the allegations of years of abuse to Jacob and his older brother made this a sensational case. The judge in the case made it clear that her hands were tied and after hearing all of the evidence, she was deeply conflicted about the mandatory LWOP sentence she had no choice but to render. After seeing Jacob Ind on the Frontline special, “When Kids Get Life”, I read “The Murder of Jacob”, by Mary Ellen Johnson. The book provides a detailed history of Jacob’s family, his home life and the circumstances before, during and after the crime. Although the book was published ten years ago, not much has changed in Jacob’s life. If, after reading this series of posts you are interested in reading The Murder of Jacob to understand more about this case, please email me at lisa dot eudaemonia at gmail dot com and I’ll mail you a copy.

The Murder of Jacobjacob-ind.jpgjacob-ind-supermax.jpg

The purpose of this series of posts is to gain an understanding of how we’re handling the cases of juveniles convicted of very serious crimes and what happens to these juveniles once we’ve locked them up. I don’t pretend to have any answers, but my contention that juvenile LWOP and incarceration for juveniles in adult prisons is wrong remains strong.

This is the first in a series of posts comprised of a list of questions that I sent to Jacob Ind. I asked if he’d allow me to post the answers to any of them he wished to answer on this blog. Jacob doesn’t actually know what a blog is, but he understands the concept and realizes that anyone can read these questions and answers and even comment on them. Prisoners don’t have access to the internet and since he’s been incarcerated since 1992, he’s never used it.

I explained to Jacob that most of us have little or no understanding about the prison system. Because he was sent to prison for Life Without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP) at such a young age, Jacob understands prison culture better than he does ours. Because Jacob is now 30 years old, he has also spent more time in the prison system than most, if not all of the other juvenile LWOPs.

Jacob is exceptionally bright and articulate and I believe he understands that my intent in asking these questions is to get a feeling for not only what General Population and Ad-Seg/CSP/Supermax are like, but what it’s like to literally grow up in prison. I find his answers to be thoughtful, as balanced as they can be from someone in his position and a sad picture of what the transition into prison is like for a youthful offender.

Jacob has spent more time in Supermax than he has in General Population. Early in his sentence, he went to Supermax for a period of eight years. That means that he’s spent most of his incarceration in what I think most of us would call solitary confinement. Several months after the airing of “When Kids Get Life” on Frontline (I don’t believe he’s ever seen it), Jacob was returned to Supermax as a result of a comment he made during a lockdown at the prison in Limon that had been in effect for many weeks. Making the comment was a foolish move on his part and during the heightened security environment in the wake of an attack on a guard by a mentally ill prisoner, the result was a transfer to Supermax. He’s been there for several months now and I believe he is in the process of appealing the transfer.

My questions are bolded. Jacob’s answers are as he provided them to me; however, Jacob writes in all capital letters, so the choice to capitalize certain terms was editorial. Comments in brackets are mine also and have been added for clarification.

It seems to me that many of the juveniles who’ve been convicted and sent to adult prisons seem to spend extensive time in administrative-segregation, which I assume means they are confined to a cell, alone for 23 hours a day. From the outside, it looks like someone who would be subject to this punishment, must be a trouble maker and must have done something terribly wrong. Three out of the five Coloradans profiled on “When Kids Get Life” have done time in Supermax and in fact, you were there for eight years previously and now you’ve been sent back. Can you explain why people, especially younger people seem to spend so much time in Ad-Seg? We’re repeatedly told that CSP is where only the worst of the worst hardened criminals are housed. Hasn’t everyone there killed someone in prison or attacked a guard or tried to stage a riot?

It is actually a bold faced lie on DOC’s part to say that Supermax is for the “worst of the worst” and that they need so many Supermax beds. Colorado is a low violence state. Systems like California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, etc. have far more incidents of beatings, stabbings, rapes, and assaults on cops [note: when Jacob refers to cops, he’s referring to corrections officers], per capita, than Colorado. By comparison, Colorado is a “soft” prison system. Yet, when compared to other states, Colorado has a disproportionately high number of Supermax beds. It takes so much more money to run a Supermax Unit that they are compelled to keep it filled at all costs to justify the expense. As a result, they have guys in here who are here for protection instead of their danger to security (because Colorado doesn’t have a protective custody, some guys act up just so they can come or stay here and be safe) and guys here who, in any other state would never be Ad-Seged.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some legitimately scary people here. There are people in CSP for escapes, killing inmates, assaulting staff, rape, etc., but I know guys who have spent time here for absurd reasons. A perfect example is [name omitted]. He ended up in Supermax for sending a letter to [omitted] County Jail in which he called someone up there a “teller”. He said nothing of attacking the guy or anything like that and the letter wasn’t even delivered. For that he spent over a year locked in a cage like an animal and treated on par with guys who rape their cell mates or who kill others.

Most common, however, is for guys to be here for some ambiguous accusation of “Security Threat Group” (gang) activity. In Colorado anybody can be labeled as an STG member and it cannot be disputed or challenged. I had a friend they labeled as both a “Blood” and a “White Supremacist”. We all got a chuckle out of that because it is so ridiculous. “White Supremacist” is their favorite label for whites because it is so generic and easy to “prove”. If a white guy in here has any white friends, some are sure to be “racist” and that makes him guilty by association.

Mexicans and Blacks have it just as bad in some ways and easier in other ways when it comes to STG labels. The majority of minorities coming into prison belong to a gang so those who aren’t in a gang still end up making friends with mostly members of one gang type or another. That allows DOC to easily claim that they’re associates of that group, but because there are more formally organized gangs with minorities it is easier for DOC to identify true members and not just associates.

What is hard on the young minority kids coming into prison is that they’re expected to remain loyal to their gang and some of the older gang members are not above exploiting the youthful urge to be accepted and to fit in. Black youth seem to be better off than Mexican kids because the Nation of Islam has enough of a following in here that if a Black kid chooses to drop his gang for The Nation, he’ll mostly be left alone. The Mexican kids don’t have a group like that, so if they leave their gangs they do so without any support. Prison is a scary place and with all the other pressures on a kid, he is not likely to abandon his support group.

That is what gets most of the juvenile offenders in trouble and sent to Supermax. DOC has the view that if they go astray it will “send a message” and scare them straight. Instead of recognizing the vulnerable position the kids are in and taking steps to intervene and redirect the youth, they lock them away until they are more manageable. The first time I went to Supermax, the mantra was “you’re young and have life” to justify keeping me here for so long. It had nothing to do with behavior, they just figured that since I was young and caught with a piece of rebar that I would be a menace until I was older.

That’s the boat Andrew Medina was in. If it wasn’t for the new mental health program which sidestepped the draconian members of the review board, he’d still be there. [Andrew Medina was shown on the Frontline Special, “When Kids Get Life” in May of 2007. At that time he had been in Supermax for over five years. He has subsequently been moved to General Population in the Centennial facility in Colorado]. That guy took his classes and stayed out of trouble, but it didn’t matter. He was young, looks very young, and has life so he wasn’t fit to be released. DOC locks away its perceived problems instead of dealing with them. It is far easier to send kids to Supermax instead of creating programs suited for their adjustment to prison. It’s the same old prejudice that youthful offenders are “Super Predators”. The truth is that we were just like any other kids and, like all kids, were liable to get into childish mischief and stupid trouble, like mouthing off to cops [note: Jacob is referring to corrections officers inside prison, not to the crimes that got the youthful offenders there]. Juvenile systems country-wide manage to deal with it without resorting to Supermax prisons, but then again, juvenile systems are designed to deal with kids, adult prison isn’t.

Upcoming Event in Boulder

When Kids Get Life

February 13th 2008

6:00 pm

Eaton Humanities 135

CU – Boulder

The Pendulum Foundation will be showing the PBS FRONTLINE documentary “When Kids Get Life.” The U.S. is one of the very few countries in the world that allows children under 18 to be prosecuted as adults and sentenced to life without parole. Currently there are more than 2000 of these young offenders imprisoned for the rest of their natural lives. In the rest of the world, there are only 12 juveniles serving the same sentence, according to figures reported to the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child. This documentary is the story of five of them in the state of Colorado.

Established as a non-profit in 2001, the Pendulum Foundation is dedicated to educating the public about the issue of children in adult prisons, and in transforming the lives of all those youthful offenders who are currently behind bars. Mary Ellen Johnson, the Executive Director of the Pendulum Foundation, will be answering questions after the screening of the documentary.

The event is free and open to the public.

The event is sponsored by the University of Colorado Law School, the Department of Philosophy of the University of Colorado – Boulder, the Center for Bioethics And Humanities at University of Colorado – Denver, the Center for Values and Social Policy, and the Pendulum Foundation.

~

For directions:

http://www.colorado.edu/campusmap/map.html?bldg=HUMN

For the official website of the PBS FRONTLINE documentary:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/whenkidsgetlife/

For the Pendulum Foundation’s website:

www.pendulumfoundation.com

 

 

Colorado Governor’s Juvenile Clemency Board Application is Available

When I decided to start this blog, I told myself that the best thing I could do to participate in the dialogue about juvenile cases and juvenile sentencing would be to learn about the law, about the impending changes and about the cases, but I wanted to keep a distance from those who’d been convicted of the crimes. I thought that getting to know the human beings behind the newspaper articles and the case files and the sentences would be too difficult on an emotional level.

I’ve found that separating this issue from the people is not as easy as I thought it would be. The Frontline special, “When Kids Get Life” put five real faces and voices on Jacob Ind, Nathan Ybanez, Erik Jensen, Trevor Jones and Andy Medina. I read Mary Ellen Johnson’s book, “The Murder of Jacob” to learn more about his story. I’ve written and received two letters from Jacob, each exchange bringing me to a deeper understanding of who he is today and what his life is like. The Rolling Stone article about Nate Ybanez provided a far more detailed history of his story. I learned about Cheryl Armstrong on The Pendulum Foundation site and subsequently spoke with her mother.

Today I received a letter from Cheryl Armstrong and she has become very real to me. I will talk more about this in a future post.

When I began writing this blog, I had assumptions about how the judicial system worked, but I never understood how gray so much of what happens is. The cases that caught my attention are all high profile, highly publicized cases because of the age of the offenders and because of the nature of the crimes.

I’ve learned that the justice system and the laws that govern it can be profoundly impacted by politics, perceived public opionion and of course by the media.

I’ve learned that most of those who’ve been locked away as children have been largely forgotten. The lucky ones have one or two people who stand behind them and support them. The unlucky ones have been forgotten by even their families.

This brings me to the Colorado Governor’s Juvenile Clemency Board. It was widely publicized when in August of 2007, Governor Ritter established the Juvenile Clemency Board. It’s difficult for someone like me, without a background in politics or the law to piece together how these things work, but I’ve learned that each state governor establishes his or her own approach to clemency. Each new governor creates his or her own criteria, and each offender who is eligible may apply for clemency, which can result in a number of possible outcomes.

The new application and the criteria to apply to the Juvenile Clemency Board are available for download here.

If a prisoner is granted clemency, it may result in a pardon and immediate release. This is very rare. What is more likely is that a prisoner may be granted commutation of a long sentence, which may or may not result in release or conditional release.

This sounds good, but someone serving a life sentence may have his sentence commuted to forty years before possibility of parole. Forty years is better than life, but not much.

What are the chances that a clemency application might be approved? Nobody knows. Each board is newly formed and reinventing the wheel, so to speak. There are no precedents. There are lots of concerns about applying for clemency, especially about going first. Nobody wants to be a test case. Governor Ritter is a former Denver District Attorney. Is a prisoner who was convicted while Governor Ritter was the prosecutor less likely to be granted clemency than a prisoner who was tried by another DA? Jeanne Smith, a member of the clemency board is a former District Attorney for El Paso County. If she reviews a clemency application that she also happened to prosecute, would that have an impact on how that offender’s application for clemency is handled?

Offenders and their family members have to weigh many questions that have no clear answers. Is it better to wait to apply for clemency under a new governor if you were convicted by the current governor?

Is the risk of having a sentence commuted to a lower, but still excessive number of years too great to risk applying for clemency?

Most of the offenders are indigent and cannot afford to retain attorneys so these are decisions they’re left to work through on their own.

I was foolish enough to think I could become involved in this issue without allowing myself to care about these people who now are trying to determine how to approach an application for clemency. The sad thing is that I’m not qualified to help them. I don’t even know who can.

Victims and victims’ families have the opportunity to present information urging that the governor deny clemency during this process. Supporters of the offenders also have the opportunity to speak on their behalf.

I’ve scoured the internet and there is no paper or article that I can find that talks about the pros and cons and issues that an offender should consider prior to applying for clemency.

If you’ve got any thoughts or ideas about things the candidates for clemency should consider, please comment or email me.

 

 

 

 

How Are the Tim Masters and Erik Jensen Cases Related?

 

This post has been written by my guest blogger, Mary Ellen Johnson, Executive Director of the Pendulum Foundation.

For the first time in Colorado history, the state has admitted that it wrongly incarcerated an innocent man. Tim Masters served nearly a decade behind bars for a murder he did not commit. On Sunday, January 20, 2008, while the front page of The Denver Post trumpeted Tim Masters forthcoming freedom, an inside opinion piece related the plight of Erik Jensen, a Colorado teen who is serving life without parole for helping his friend flee his abusive mother.

According to the article, “(Prosecutors) maintained that (Erik) conspired with Nathan to kill (Nathan’s mother) and then helped him carry out the crime. They charged him with murder based on a complicity theory.

As their proof, prosecutors offered the testimony of a third teen involved in the crime, Brett Baker. Under intense pressure from prosecutors, Brett testified in exchange for having several charges against him dropped. Even though Brett failed a lie detector test – which prosecutors required as part of the deal – they still put him on the stand. But jurors never heard about that.

… Based in large part on Brett’s testimony, jurors convicted Erik and sentenced him to die in prison.” (Colorado jurors can’t know the actual sentence. Much to the dismay of many jurors who find out after the fact that real life is nothing like television where the bad guys walk on a technicality or after serving a couple of years in a country club, jurors have no idea that conviction means mandatory life.)

How are the Tim Masters and Erik Jensen cases connected?

While Tim Masters was 25 when he was arrested, he was first interrogated at 15. Masters’ interrogation, portions of which are shown on a Denver Post video, are shocking. (Note: To view video, use drop down menu to the right of the video window to select “Sketchy Evidence” clip.)

A female police officer leans toward Masters and says, “I know you did it. I’m telling you. You did it.”The male investigator joins in, “We know that you did it, Tim.”The teen withstood seven hours of similar bullying. (While Tim never “confessed,” studies show many innocent teens — and adults — DO).

Which brings me to Erik Jensen. There are degrees of culpability. On the continuum of innocence, Tim Masters is 100% pure. In Erik’s case he admits to cleaning up after Nathan’s deed. Where does that put Erik on the scale of innocence: maybe 80%? 75%? For this admittedly foolish and even criminal act, a 17-year-old should be sentenced to die in prison?

Remember: with the admission of Tim Masters’ innocence, we’ve witnessed up close and personal the nasty underbelly of Colorado’s justice system — an underbelly that our juveniles serving life have been complaining about for years. In Erik’s case, the teen who fingered him failed a lie detector test. He was offered a deal. He escaped prosecution for other offenses by “rolling over” on Erik.

How can this be? What evidence, other than the word of a kid who wanted to keep himself out of jail, actually pointed to Erik’s involvement in killing Julie Ybanez?

Prisoners call such informants “snitches.” And, those of you on the outside who have never been involved in the system and who can’t conceive of ever being caught up in our criminal courts, need to know that many of those serving time behind bars are there on the basis of jail house snitches, as well as VERY questionable “evidence”.

Worst of all, the practice of using snitches is perfectly legal. Actually, America’s justice system would collapse without them. As would interrogation tactics similar–or even harsher–than those used on Tim Masters. While reading the transcripts of one of our young LWOPs, I noticed where an officer promised the kid, who’d been riding in the backseat of a car from which much older occupants participated in a fatal drive-by, that a confession would guarantee the kid YOS (A juvenile facility). Many years later the now grown man points to that ersatz promise as the reason he should get a new trial. I try to explain that lies are perfectly legal — so long as law enforcement does the lying.

“How come it’s okay for the officer to lie?” he asks plaintively.

When asked about this double standard, law enforcement responds that sometimes ya gotta do what ya gotta do in order to catch the bad guys. Really? When a child faces life without parole, I would think police and prosecutors would do everything in their power to arrest and convict the correct suspect. Bullying kids shouldn’t be part of the script. As we all know, kids will say anything. And, by law, kids who are charged as adults can’t have their parents in an interrogation room to protect them. Adults get tripped up all the time on this business of Miranda rights or other legal “technicalities” that could earn them a one-way ticket to the big house. And we say it’s okay to use those some tactics on 14-15-16 and 17-year olds?

Colorado has at least 4 kids serving life who swear they are innocent, that no real physical evidence ties them to the scene of the crime. I can’t speak to the truth of those claims. I DO know that we have juveniles sentenced to die in prison, whose state-provided investigators never actually visited the scene of the crime or interviewed potential defense witnesses. We have juveniles who may have met with their attorneys once before trial — and this is for a first-degree murder charge. We have juveniles who had two, three and four day trials where no defense witnesses were even called. Many young men and women convicted as juveniles complain of the shockingly inadequate quality of their defense. Even with their lives on the line, the state of Colorado gave them the appearance of a fair trial without the actual reality.

Colorado has been forced to admit that it made a “mistake” with Tim Masters. “That proves the system works”, assert some who make their living in the justice system.

I disagree.

Had it not been for the dogged efforts of Masters’ appeals attorneys and of a hard-hitting investigative reporter, Miles Moffeit, Tim would be just another annoying prisoner proclaiming his innocence to people who neither believe nor care. Furthermore, I contend there are other “mistakes” serving hard time. Look at the Tim Masters’ interrogation and ask yourself, what other 15-year-olds have been similarly bullied?

Read Erik Jensen’s story and ask yourself whether a 17-year-old should spend the rest of his life behind bars on the basis of a few suspect words supplied by a frightened fellow teen?

What other children sentenced to life without parole were denied justice? How many other Tim Masters will die forgotten in a concrete cage the size of a parking space?

And what are we going to do about all the Erik Jensens, who are struggling to maintain their humanity, as well as their hope, while the weeks, months and years slip past?

I hope that America’s collective “we” will finally decide that it’s time to move past retribution and toward redemption.

Mary Ellen Johnson

Executive Director, Pendulum Foundation

(720)-314-1402

MaryEllen@pendulumfoundation.com

The Pendulum Foundation

5082 E. Hampden Ave, Suite 192

Denver, CO 80222