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A Conversation with Ofra Bikel

photo of ofra bikel

"When Kids Get Life" is the latest in producer Ofra Bikel's ongoing investigations into America's criminal justice system. Her previous FRONTLINE reports on the subject include The O.J. Verdict (2005), The Plea (2004), Burden of Innocence (2003), An Ordinary Crime (2002), The Case for Innocence (2000), Snitch (1999) and Innocence Lost, a trilogy of programs from the 1990s.

How did you come to be interested in this topic?

I was always interested in the law, and I often thought about doing something about juvenile justice. Not necessarily LWOP [life without parole], but something.

How did you settle on Colorado as your focus?

Colorado is an interesting state in terms of its laws regarding juveniles. It used to be the most advanced state, then became one of the harshest. It was also interesting that when they changed the law sentencing children to LWOP in 2006, they did not make it retroactive and left 45 inmates serving their life sentence for crimes they committed as juveniles.

How did you choose the five inmates that you ended up profiling?

I made up a list of 12 or so young offenders and got a positive response from five.

Some [who we didn't profile] were scared; others were locked up in the supermax, into which we had no entry.

What restrictions were placed on your filming with these inmates?

We could only visit them once; no follow-up interviews. We could only interview for an hour and a half, I think.

You are well-known for reporting on the cases of the wrongly accused. Here we have, for the most part, prisoners who have admitted to doing the crime. Is it different for you to deal with the guilty rather than the innocent?

Not really. When I interview wrongfully accused people, I don't know they are wrongfully accused until the end. So the process is the same.

In two of the cases -- Jacob Ind and Nathan Ybanez -- social workers were alerted to the situations in the homes, but to no avail. What are we to make of that?

Unfortunately, the answer is that you cannot count all that much on the social services. They are underfunded and overworked. And don't forget these kids were 15, 16, and I guess the social workers feel that they can sort out their problems by themselves. Obviously, in these cases, they didn't.

In two cases -- Ybanez's and Andrew Medina's -- there were allegations of incompetence or even willful negligence on the part of their legal counsel. What do you think was going on in those cases?

Incompetence and willful negligence is what I think was going on. Are you surprised?

Andrew Medina's original lawyer, who had him write a letter of apology; I know that she has declined to speak about the case, but is there anything that you are allowed to say about her?

I can only say that she made a huge mistake. I don't know why she thought that the letter she asked Andy to write to the pastor could solve the problem. We know that, in fact, it damned him.

Given the problems with legal counsel, with social workers, and with the sentencing laws that come into play in these cases, is this a story about miscarriages of justice, or is it about a larger principle; namely, that we shouldn't be sentencing juveniles to life without parole?

No, it is not miscarriage of justice; it is more justice as usual. This is the system. Ineffective assistance of counsel is routine.

You mention in the film that several of the inmates you profiled have spent time in the supermax facility. Do we know why they were sent there? Is it common for prisoners to spend some time in that facility?

The DOC [Department of Corrections] explained to me that the supermax, usually referred to as CSP (Colorado State Penitentiary), is a "classification" for the incorrigible, as opposed to a punishment.

How they decide someone is incorrigible, only God and they know. How they think someone will be rehabilitated enough to get back into the general population is also a bit of mystery, given the fact that the inmates are locked up for 23 hours a day behind steel doors.

What about the victims? In the show you speak to Gail Palone whose son was killed by Trevor Jones. Did you speak to any other victims' families in the course of making the film?

No, I didn't.

If Trevor Jones has his sentence reduced someday, what would you say to Gail Palone?

I don't know that I would say anything, but hopefully she can one day understand that LWOP serves no purpose. Her loss is terrible, and nothing that Trevor can do will make it easier for her. He cannot bring her son back to her, but he has been punished enough, and he can do much more good outside than locked up for the rest of his life.

He has been punished for what he did; the rest is vengeance.

In the past, you've done reports for FRONTLINE that have dealt with issues of race and class. The inmates here are, for the most part, white and from the suburbs. Has that been a different experience for you? Is this an issue that cuts across social and racial lines in a way that other issues of law and justice don't?

There was no real difference for me. When I first wrote to ask for the interviews it so happened that all of the African Americans I wrote to either did not want to participate or were in CSP [supermax]. I don't think this is different than any other issue in the justice system, and race still plays the dominant part. It is just that it happened that way in this report.

You mention in the report that younger offenders are excellent candidates for rehabilitation. Did you encounter, in your research, any examples that proved that theory out?

I heard a few stories of astonishing rehabilitation, and I met one guy who somehow got parole after 17 years and is doing amazingly well.

Have you had any contact with these inmates since you finished filming? Do you plan to keep in touch with them?

I got some very sweet notes from Nathan Ybanez with charming drawings. I am in touch with some of the families of the others. I talked to Gail Palone last week.

What's next for you? Is there another issue in the justice system that you're looking to tackle? Or perhaps something completely different?

Yes, maybe something completely different. Send any ideas you may have my way!

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posted may. 8, 2007

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