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.
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
The Pendulum Foundation
5082 E. Hampden Ave, Suite 192
Denver, CO 80222