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When Kids Get Life

Ofra Bikel

[Tonight's program contains graphic imagery and descriptions of violence and sexual abuse. Viewer discretion is advised.]

ERIK JENSEN: Nate and I were kids. We became men in the joint. We never got to graduate high school or go to college, or really do anything that a normal adult does. Our whole adult life has been here, where nothing's normal.

ANNOUNCER: In the United States, there are 2,225 young offenders who have been sentenced to life without parole for having committed murder in their teens.

GAIL PALONE, Matthew Foley's mother: They took lives. They took sons. They took mothers. They took fathers. They took aunts. They took uncles. They took so much away from people, and we can never get it back.

MITCH MORRISSEY, District Attorney, Denver: These are the worst of the worst. There's no question about that.

JENNIFER JONES, Trevor's sister: We knew Trevor was going to do some time in prison. Nobody ever said he was- he was innocent. And 12 or 15 years seems much more appropriate than automatic life without parole.

TREVOR JONES: They're going to put me in this warehouse until I die. That's about really what they want. So sometimes there's real despair and hopelessness. OK, there's a whole lot of life out there, and you're no part of it.

GAIL PALONE: You know, I don't care if he finds a cure for cancer in there, he should never get out of prison.

Prof. JEFFREY FAGAN, Columbia Law School: Vengeance is not justice, vengeance is vengeance.

JACOB IND: Life without parole sends the message, "You are not worthy of rehabilitation. You're worthless. You're a monster. You're not fit for society. And you're a dangerous, rabid animal that needs to be kept away."

ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE, a story set in one state, Colorado, where 45 young offenders have been sent to prison for the rest of their natural lives.

NEWSCASTER: Teller County sheriff calls the scene gruesome.

NARRATOR: It was one of the most heinous crimes in Colorado in 1992.

POLICE OFFICER: Scene of the double homicide. We'll be entering the house right now. Looks like a scuffle may have taken place in here.

POLICE OFFICER: Quite a bit of blood lost.

POLICE OFFICER: OK, coming around the bedroom.

NARRATOR: Fifteen-year-old Jacob Ind and a classmate brutally killed his mother and stepfather. Jacob is now 29 years old.

JACOB IND: In another year, I would have had just as much time in prison as out of prison. All my conscious life, I've been more in prison than out. I mean, my mind's a mess when it comes to my past, trying to sort everything out. I mean, it's- there's so many paradoxes in there, it's just hard to wrap my brain around.

MARY ELLEN JOHNSON, Author, The Murder of Jacob: I could not forget about Jacob. For some reason, he haunted me.

NARRATOR: Mary Ellen Johnson, who would eventually write a book about the case, first heard about it from her daughter, who was Jacob's classmate.

MARY ELLEN JOHNSON: Everybody was talking about it. This was a very unusual happening in a small town, a small mountain town, and nobody could remember a murder happening there. They lived in a very lovely home. They had a big motor home parked outside of their house. The house sat up on a hill with a fabulous view. I used to drive by it and think, "I wonder who lives in that kind of a house." They were a very handsome couple. They were like the perfect parents. The boys were very well behaved- "Yes, ma'am," "No, sir." They were the perfect family.

NARRATOR: But the family was not as perfect as it seemed.

CHARLES IND, Jacob's Brother: The home was filled with fear and anxiety. Every morning was an assessment on what's going to happen that day, what kind of mood are they going to be in, is it going to be a halfway decent day.

NARRATOR: Charles, four years older than Jacob, is now a therapist.

CHARLES IND: I always remember coming back from school and being able to relax until we heard the garage door open, and just the overwhelming feeling of panic because then again, we had to reassess on what's going to happen that night.

NARRATOR: What often happened was abuse, emotional and physical, and one they never talked about even to each other, sexual, sexual abuse inflicted by their stepfather, Kermode Jordan, who married their mother when the boys were 4 and 8. In August 1992, when he was 18 years old, Charles moved out of the house.

CHARLES IND: For the first time, I said, "No, I won't be around this man any longer. I'm not going to take it. I don't deserve it. And I'm leaving."

NARRATOR: But before he left, he says, he went to Social Services to ask them to keep an eye on his brother.

CHARLES IND: This was part of my plan. I went to ask if he could help my brother. And he said, "I have my notes, and I'll- and we'll start an investigation."

OFRA BIKEL: Did they?


NARRATOR: The social worker would claim that he didn't remember this part of the conversation when, a few months later, Jacob shot his mother and stepfather to death.

NEWSCASTER: The 16-year-old is charged with first degree murder for killing his mother and stepfather, Pam and Kermode Jordan, in their Woodland Park home.

PAUL MONES, Attorney & Author, When a Child Kills: When these homicides happen, they tend to be some of the worst crime scenes you'll ever see. Now the term "heinous" may go to what they're talking about, the nature of the kid, that the kid is a heinous person. I don't agree with that. These kids by and large are responding to typically horrific situations at home. They see no way out. And when they kill, through a confluence of circumstances, that's supposed to be unexpected. But if you look at their lives, it unfortunately follows a tragedy that is waiting to happen.

NEWSCASTER: The 16-year-old boy spent the day stoically watching a parade of witnesses-

NARRATOR: Jacob's trial took place two years later, in 1994.

NEWSCASTER: To evaluate the 16-year-old after he shot and killed his mother and stepfather-

NARRATOR: It was in the news every day.

NEWSCASTER: -nervously twitching a pen, was in from the beginning on the killing of his own parents-

NARRATOR: The one witness who could shed light on Jacob's life at home was his older brother, Charles.

CHARLES IND: [trial testimony] There were many secrets in the house that we didn't tell people.

I did my best as far as explaining to the court the type of environment that we were in, the pain that we were experiencing and being inflicted upon, even the sexual abuse. I broke my code of silence, and in front of the whole world to see, with the cameras rolling and everything.

He would basically rape us.

He would wait until we got home, oftentimes sneaking up behind me or Jacob, and throwing us into the bathroom, literally taking us by the shoulders and tossing us into the bathroom. And there he would hit- hit us across the face and body and say, "Get on the toilet," and he would pull the ropes out from underneath the credenza.

-have us get undressed, then tie us. He would start- start to masturbate. And after he was done, he would get dressed and say, "You're so [deleted] dirty. Go and take a [deleted] shower."

Always laughing. It- it was always- I mean, to say it was maniacal would be an understatement, just laughing, chuckling, pleased with himself.

NEWSCASTER: Ind has never said, at least on record, that he was molested, but his brother testified that it happened to both boys.

PAUL MONES, Attorney & Author, When a Child Kills: The problem is, is child abuse is the perfect crime. It's a perfect crime because parents who do it seal their own protection because they know the kids are typically, A, not going to fight back, and B, typically not report, because as bad as children get treated by their parents, that parent is still the caregiver. That parent still is the nourisher. And it's very difficult for the average human being to fight against that person, to rebel against that person. And that's why parricide is such a unique offense.

OFRA BIKEL: Did your mother know?

CHARLES IND: I think she did know, in the back of her mind. I think she was very much in denial about the true nature of Kermode.

MARY ELLEN JOHNSON: In a lot of cases of parricide, they'll be just as angry at the person who throws them to the wolves, so to speak. And even if the mother weren't doing anything, the kids will say, "Why didn't you protect us?" In Jacob's case, not only didn't she protect him, she was doing the same things to him. And it wasn't just sexual abuse. I mean, she treated him horrendously.

WITNESS: [trial testimony] Well, not only was she unhappy with her marriage, she was also unhappy with being pregnant with her second child. He was about 8, 9 moths old. And we went in- she did not know I had followed her in there, and she just kind of grabbed Jacob and she goes, "I just hate you. I just"- she goes, "I wish you had never been born," you know? I just felt-

CHARLES IND: Jacob was conceived to save the marriage, to repair it. And he became the representation of her broken dreams. And I think in many, many respects, she resented Jacob's entire existence.

NARRATOR: Growing up, Jacob began to cut himself.

JACOB IND: All my life, I've been a cutter. When things get hard, I cut on myself and it makes me feel better. I get this huge ball of- I couldn't even name the emotion. I mean, it was just chaos inside, and cutting would be the only way to release it.

NARRATOR: No one paid attention.

CHARLES IND: When your cries for help go unheard, there are no options. At that point - and I understand this is where Jacob was coming from - this was pure survival.

NEWSCASTER: Some of the evidence prosecutors brought out today included a baseboard, a door, and part of a wall. All are splattered with blood.

EXPERT WITNESS: [at trial] There has to be some type of force impacting the blood, causing the blood to-

PAUL MONES: The extreme damage done to the child is reflected in the rage of the homicide. They have to use the baseball bat numerous times. They have to stab numerous times. They never fire one bullet from a gun, they fire the whole barrel. It's not just bang and you're dead. Never happens like that. Never, never, never.

NEWSCASTER: But is abuse a reason to commit murder? A question the jury must eventually answer.

JACOB IND: For years, I mean, when things get real bad, I'd be able to tell myself, "OK, but they'll be gone soon." I'd say, "I don't have to put up with it much longer." I took sanctuary within that fantasy of it being over. And it's still almost half fantasy for me, all the way until the point of the murders.

I mean, even when- up until the first trigger was actually pulled, it was still to me half fantasy. All I wanted was something to end. I didn't really grasp the permanency of their deaths, definitely didn't understand the gravity of what it means to kill somebody. I mean, I didn't think that they would feel pain. I didn't think that anybody else would be affected. And now when I think back and I realize the amount of pain, it's, like, "Oh, my God."

I mean, I remember I was sitting in the police station. I mean, this is how out of touch with reality I was. I had a small amount of marijuana, like an eighth of an ounce, in my bedroom. And I'm telling my brother, "You got to get the marijuana or else I'm in trouble." I'm arrested for first degree murder, and I don't think I'm in trouble. I'm telling my brother get my homework from school and get my absence excused.

I didn't know what they were going to do with me, but I sure didn't think I was in trouble. I had no concept at all of what was going on.

PROSECUTOR: Whatever happened in that house has been exaggerated, has been exaggerated for one purpose, to get this defendant off as an excuse to kill. And there should be no excuse for killing.

CHARLES IND: So the trial was agonizing and it was painful. And I certainly didn't feel as though human dignity was ever served, or let alone justice.

JURY FOREWOMAN: As for count number one, we the jury find the defendant, Jacob Ind, guilty of first degree murder-

CHARLES IND: They came down with a first degree murder sentence. They said, according to the letter of the law, first degree murder is what he did.

JURY FOREWOMAN: As for count number two-

PAUL MONES: If you look at around the country, the way people are treated who commit homicide, we treat most leniently those parents who kill their children, and we treat most harshly the teenagers who kill their parents.

CHARLES IND: Even the judge at sentencing said, "My hands are tied. I have no choice." And she handed him his life sentence.

NARRATOR: Colorado, where Jacob will be incarcerated for the rest of his life, was once one of the most progressive states in the country.

MAUREEN CAIN, Defense Attorney: Colorado was always considered advanced in terms of its juvenile justice system. And the city and county of Denver had one of the few juvenile courts, a court that was designated that it only involved juvenile justice. And we developed a youth correctional system that was known nationally, if not internationally, for its treatment of youth offenders, particularly violent youth offenders.

Prof. JEFFREY FAGAN, Columbia Law School: These courts were founded on the principle that we don't really care what the child did, we care why he got to court. We wanted to know the background of his life, his social circumstances, in some cases his psychological circumstances. And the courts sought to bring to bear on this child's life and his family's life whatever resources they had available to correct this developmental deviation.

NARRATOR: There were formal, well-defined procedures to follow when children were transferred from juvenile to adult court.

Hon. KAREN ASHBY, Presiding Judge, Denver Juvenile Court: If a district attorney believed that a child's case should be held in adult court, they would make a request of the court. There would be a comprehensive hearing. The juvenile would be represented by an attorney. The prosecutor would be present at the hearing. And the court would receive a wide array of information about why the child should be transferred to criminal court or why a child should remain in juvenile court.

JERRY ADAMEK, Dir, Colorado Youth Corrections, 1991-98: When we were growing up, there was an expectation that children had the right to fail. They had the right to make mistakes. In some cases, we made very significant mistakes, but people didn't throw in the towel for us. They were willing to allow us to learn from those mistakes, to move forward and become productive citizens. I think society now is very unforgiving. Society is very intolerant and has no patience for even children.

[www.pbs.org: Timeline of juvenile justice in Colorado]

NARRATOR: The change in attitude and policy was triggered by a sharp, highly publicized increase in violent crimes committed by young offenders during the late 1980s and 90s.

NEWSCASTER: Every 92 minutes, an American child dies as a result of gunfire.

NEWSCASTER: Nationwide, younger and younger teens are committing more and more heinous crimes.

NEWSCASTER: The FBI says every American now has a realistic chance of being a murder victim.

NEWSCASTER: There is no avoiding driving through, quote, "bad neighborhoods," unquote because the bad neighborhoods are coming to a place near you.

NARRATOR: In Colorado, the events of 1993 were labeled by the press as "the summer of violence."

NEWSCASTER: There has been an epidemic of kids using guns in the Denver metropolitan area.

NEWSCASTER: In Denver, another young shooting victim is clinging to life, while some grownups now are saying "Enough."

NEWSCASTER: The killing has continued, and summer is only half over.

MAUREEN CAIN: So there was a lot of publicity about it. Many of the crimes still were never solved, but the community had great fear.

WOMAN: We have a bunch of wild animals running out there. We have to get them off the street and quit poisoning the rest of our children!

MAUREEN CAIN: The media covered these stories over and over and over again. I think that's what drove the governor to ask for a special session.

JERRY ADAMEK: Governor Romer brought back all of our legislators to consider the issues relating to youth violence and juvenile crime, and policy-makers met in one of the most intensive five-day periods that I've ever experienced, looking at how could we become tougher on crime. So it became a process of almost one-upsmanship. I remember very vividly one of the leaders of the state house of representatives going to the podium on the second or third evening and describing what was going on around him as a feeding frenzy.

NARRATOR: The legislature seized upon a simple formula: Youths who committed adult crimes should be treated as adults. And because adults could be sentenced since 1991 to life without parole, so would juveniles.

MAUREEN CAIN: And I'm not sure we even really knew what we were doing when we decided that juveniles should be direct filed on and should start serving life without parole. That was very reactive. But the whole identity of children got lost and we started seeing prosecutors say things like, "These aren't children, these are murderers."

NARRATOR: Charging juveniles as adults was left to the discretion of the prosecutors. They could now file charges directly, taking the process out of the hands of judges.

Hon. KAREN ASHBY, Presiding Judge, Denver Juvenile Court: Since I have been on the bench in juvenile court, since September of 1998, we have not had a transfer hearing in Denver juvenile court. The cases that have been held- the juvenile cases that have gone to adult court, that decision has been solely made by the district attorney's office, based upon the charge that they have decided to file against the juvenile, as well as the child's age.

MITCH MORRISSEY, District Attorney, Denver: We do that. We make that decision. Are we going to treat this individual as a juvenile, or are we going to treat him as an adult? I have to tell you, in first degree murder- in these kinds of first degree murders, most of the time we treat them as adults. These are egregious crimes.

NORM MUELLER, Defense Attorney: Crime has always been a big political issue, and so it's very easy for politicians to say, "Let's punish. Let's make the sentences longer. Let's not let people get out."

NARRATOR: Norm Mueller is a defense attorney in Denver who has been practicing there for 35 years.

NORM MUELLER: There were two cases that I was personally involved with that I think illustrate the change that has occurred in Colorado. In the late 80s, I represented a 14-year-old boy who was charged with first degree murder. It was a direct file. He was charged with first degree murder as an adult. And the result of that case was that he- while he sustained a felony conviction as an adult, he was given a five-year sentence to the juvenile justice system.

That case is very similar to the Erik Jensen case. Both of them fit the profile of being with somebody else who committed a murder and serving probably more fundamentally as an accessory. Yet Erik Jensen was prosecuted also as an adult but given life without parole in prison.

NARRATOR: Erik Jensen, now 25, has been in prison for eight years.

CURT JENSEN, Erik's Father: Where would we be today if Erik weren't there? We'd probably have moved, at least for the wintertime, to some other place. So it has kept us here because we don't think about, "Let's go buy a house someplace else." We think about, "Let's stay here, where we can stay close enough to Erik that we can go see him on the weekends." It's like other people say, "It's Sunday, it's time to go to church." We say, "It's Sunday, it's time to go see Erik."

NARRATOR: It's a round trip of six hours.

PAT JENSEN, Erik's Mother: We just don't think about it anymore, it's just something that we do. How can I not do that? He's my son. I really and truly don't think there's been a day go by that we haven't talked about him in one way or another. He's always on our mind.

NARRATOR: At home, in a wealthy suburb of Denver, Curt Jensen, a venture capitalist, and his wife, Pat, cling to everything their son Erik ever owned- his toys, his baseball caps, his musical instruments, his paintings.

PAT JENSEN: You go through the same stages of grief that you go through when someone dies. First you're distraught and you cry all the time, and then you deny and then you get angry, and then eventually you accept. And so I'm sort of at the acceptance stage, but I'm still angry.

NARRATOR: It all started when 15-year-old Nathan Ybanez came into their lives as the new guitarist in Erik's band, named Troublebound.

ERIK JENSEN: We just clicked. I know somebody who is loyal, and I value it above pretty much everything else. And Nate is, above everything else, loyal. And I saw it in him immediately.

PAT JENSEN: He was a really nice boy. He was always pleasant, extremely well behaved. There was something about him when I first met him that made me a little uncomfortable, but I couldn't tell you what it was. It wasn't something about Nathan in particular, it was just a- a feeling I got when I met him that there was trouble ahead.

NARRATOR: When trouble came one year later, it was beyond anything she could have imagined.

NEWSCASTER: Sixteen-year-old Nathan Ybanez, a troubled teen, allegedly beat and strangled his mother to death. If convicted, Ybanez could spend life in prison without parole.

PAT JENSEN: We were so shocked. It was just like out of the blue to us. I mean, we knew there were things going on, but it didn't seem like it was that extreme, that it would cause that kind of reaction.

CURT JENSEN: Four days after Julie Ybanez was killed, Erik and I had a long talk about what went on and he told me exactly what had happened. He said that he had driven home Nathan from work that day. Nathan apparently felt very agitated that night. He said, "Well, I'm going to go up." Erik waited in the car for quite a while, 20 minutes to half an hour, went up to the door and knocked. And Nathan's mother, Julie, answered the door.

She immediately told Erik to go to Nathan's bedroom, which he did. He started to walk into the room, and as he walked into the room, he turned and looked over his shoulder and he saw Nathan strike his mother with a fireplace instrument. Nathan was yelling, "You'll never do this to me again. You'll never do this to me again."

ERIK JENSEN: Basically, I was panicking at that point. After, you know, 15 or 20 seconds, I heard silence, and so I figured that their fight was done. There was a dividing wall in the middle of the house, and when I came around it, there was blood everywhere.

CURT JENSEN: And Erik looked down and said, "I don't know what you're doing." At that point, Nathan handed him the fireplace instrument, and then he just fell over and I think fainted.

ERIK JENSEN: There was a pool of blood on the floor. I ended up on my knees in it right there. And it- it ended up he strangled her.

CURT JENSEN: Nathan had her in a stranglehold with the fireplace instrument. And she was dead.

PAT JENSEN: I couldn't believe it. I really couldn't believe that he hadn't stopped it or that he hadn't run away or something and tried to get help, or tried to stop Nate or something.

ERIK JENSEN: I'm sure there was a lot I could have done. I didn't do any of it. So I guess, like I said in retrospect, I should have- it should have never started, ever.

NATHAN YBANEZ: Erik was pretty much a normal kid. I don't think he could have really understood what was going on and grasped the situation involved. So I don't think he was prepared for anything like that to happen. He knew that things were messed up in my house, and between myself and my parents, but- he was just a kid, you know?

NARRATOR: It wasn't just Erik who couldn't understand what was going on in the Ybanez household. His parents, too, had been troubled.

PAT JENSEN: The more we got to know Nathan and to know his parents, it became rather painfully obvious that there was something wrong. His parents thought he was not doing well in school and would periodically blame that on the band. They would come to one of the band's performances and everything would be wonderful, and then next week, they would tell him he couldn't be in the band anymore and they'd come and get his stuff and they'd leave because they thought the boys were a bad influence or something. Then two weeks later, they'd let him come back. I mean, it was that up and down, reward, punishment kind of thing. It just drove me crazy.

NATHAN YBANEZ: A lot of times, I was trying to do what other normal kids were doing and- but for me, it was always this insane battle. I mean, I had to- I had to fight, you know, logically and plead and beg just to do normal things that other kids were doing. It was very stressful and difficult.

PAT JENSEN: I used to talk to his mother a lot. At one point, she asked if Nathan could stay at our house for two weeks, which I thought was really strange, given their behavior before. She and her husband were having problems and they were trying to work out a reconciliation. She said she was afraid- and that was the word she used, she was afraid that if she- if Nathan were there with them when she and her husband were trying to make up, that her husband would hurt him. That's what she said. She said, "I'm just- I'm afraid for Nathan."

NARRATOR: Pat was constantly startled by Julie's revelations.

PAT JENSEN: She told me two or three times that she followed him when he would go to work or when he was going- he went to a dance or something and- she followed him.

ERIK JENSEN: A normal parent, I'm sure, wants to know what their kid's doing, but I doubt they follow him around at 3:00 o'clock in the morning, when they're, you know, out TP'ing.

PAT JENSEN: All the boys stayed over here a lot because Erik had his own place down in the basement, and so they had some privacy. So at least three or four times a week, he would call and ask their parents if they could stay over. And Nathan was never allowed to stay over. He would call and ask his mother if he could stay, and he'd be on the phone for an hour.

ERIK JENSEN: And he was, like, you know, "I'm going to call my mom." And I was, like, "That's cool." So he'd go in to call his mom, and the rest of us all stayed out there. About a hour or so went by, and you know, we started realizing, you know, "Where's Nate?" And I went in to- I went into the house to go check, to find out where he was, and he was sitting in the room, in a dark room, and talking to his mom. And his voice was a lot different than I was used to hearing it. It was, like, childish almost, and it was- and he was saying things like, you know, "I love you," and, "You know I love you, you know I would do that for you," and this and that. And it kind of creeped me out.

So I grabbed another phone in a different room to hear what was going on, and his mom was on the other end talking about, you know, "Why don't you take care of me? You're supposed to take care of me tonight. You're supposed to love me tonight," and variations of that for- over and over, for a good, you know, 10, 15 minutes. And I wasn't quite sure how to take that, how to deal with that. I hung up. And you know, Nate ended up not being able to stay over.

NATHAN YBANEZ: The way my mother was, is she always brought it down to an issue of whether or not I loved her. So a lot of times, she would bring that down to the level of, "Well," you know, "you don't want to come home because you don't love me," or stuff like that.

ERIK JENSEN: That was the first time I realized that there might be a whole lot more going on. And I guess there's just no really good way to broach that subject with your friend. You know, it's not something that kids talk about. Everybody pretty much suspected it, and nobody actually came right out and said it.

NATHAN YBANEZ: There's a lot of things that we think- a lot of problems that we have in our lives that we think we're keeping hidden so well. A lot of it's just not hidden at all. Other people know it quite easily.

My mother- a lot of times, it would happen like this. She's crying or something's sad, so I don't like to see her cry, so I ask her what's wrong. I try to get her to talk about whatever it was that was making her sad. And a lot of times, it would- you know, it would involve me coming and giving her hugs and staying in bed with her and letting her unload. And a few times, that evolved into her doing sexual things to me that she shouldn't have been doing.

OFRA BIKEL: Did you- what was your feeling at that point?

NATHAN YBANEZ: I was afraid and embarrassed, and I wanted to go away.

OFRA BIKEL: Not enjoying it in the least?

NATHAN YBANEZ: No, not at first. But you know, those types of physical responses are inherently, you know, enjoyable. But it's not the kind of- it's like- it's like- it's like having oil on your skin, you know what I mean? It's a dirty sensation. You don't want it there. You want to scrape it off. Does that make sense?

OFRA BIKEL: Yeah. Yeah. Did you ever discuss it with her?

NATHAN YBANEZ: No. I didn't want to talk about any of that. I mean, the least I talked about things, and I when I kept them away, I was kind of hoping that they would just go away. And then if I don't talk about them, if they stay away and hidden, then they'll go away. And then things can be- maybe be normal here sometime soon.

NARRATOR: Erik, and Brett Baker, another member of the band, felt that Nathan needed help.

ERIK JENSEN: We tried to do things ourselves for a little while because Nate ran away a couple of times. But every time he ran away, he would get brought right back. So Brett and I tell both our parents all the stuff that we know, that we've, you know, figured out so far, which is, basically, we know his dad's beating him. We know they're mentally messing with him at some point, and I'm suspecting that the mom's doing something worse.

PAT JENSEN: The fact that Erik came to us and asked us to help in this situation was difficult for him, to tell us something personal about his friend that his friend probably didn't want us to know and to ask us to get involved and get- that was a hard thing for him to do.

NARRATOR: The Jensens consulted a county social service worker.

CURT JENSEN: The unofficial view of the department was that they didn't have enough people or staff or money to take care of boys who were in their teens, and that those boys were seen to be able to take care of themselves.

PAT JENSEN: So we can't do anything? You know, there's nothing to do here? And she said, "You know, I can fill something out, but I'm telling you nothing will happen." And we were just appalled.

ERIK JENSEN: It made me so mad to know that that type of stuff was happening to people, you know? Because honestly, I live in a sheltered- I grew up sheltered, you know? My parents are, you know, perfect, damn near, you know? If I did something wrong, I got grounded, never hit me. They're always there to give me the right lessons. You know, I always had food. I always had a warm place to sleep. I never felt like I was worthless.

And here's this other kid who's getting the exact opposite from me, and I thought, "How am I the first person that's noticed this?" Really. How has there not been somebody in the last 16 years that hasn't looked at this kid and thought, you know, why not help him?

NARRATOR: Eventually, the prosecution would argue that Erik's very concern and care for his friend were instrumental in Nathan killing his mother. It was June 5, 1998.

ERIK JENSEN: That day was basically the same as any other. Nate called earlier in the day and asked if I'd give him a ride home. And he was telling me, "Man," you know, "things are really going bad." And I told him, you know, "We'll talk more when I come pick you up."

NARRATOR: Erik picked up Nathan at the bagel store where he worked. Nathan was anxious and depressed.

NATHAN YBANEZ: Things reached a point where I just couldn't- I couldn't keep what had been going on inside of myself anymore. I knew that something had to be done, but I wasn't sure what. I wasn't sure if I had to kill myself or what was going to happen. It felt like I was in a little box and it kept getting smaller, and the box has sharp things on it that cut me every now and then. And all I want to do is get outside the box and have some peace. But I got to the point where I realized that, well, there is no escape from the box. It's not possible to get out.

NARRATOR: He talked about killing his parents.

ERIK JENSEN: I could not fathom that anybody actually could do that, that that was even an option, killing anybody. I didn't take it seriously because I couldn't imagine that it could be serious.

NATHAN YBANEZ: I hit her. And it just escalated and didn't stop.

OFRA BIKEL: Was it rage?

NATHAN YBANEZ: No, it was more- sadness.

OFRA BIKEL: You killed her with sadness?

NATHAN YBANEZ: Excuse me? I was sad. I was very sad.

OFRA BIKEL: Did she know what was going on?

NATHAN YBANEZ: I think that she did.

OFRA BIKEL: Did you know what was going on?

NATHAN YBANEZ: I think that I did, too.

ERIK JENSEN: It's not something you can plan for. I think it took both of us completely by surprise.

PAT JENSEN: Several years later, we were talking about this and he said, well, you know, it all happened in, like, a minute. It was over- 45 seconds, a minute, and it was over. And I said what? Because when it's described, when you heard it being described at the trial and when Erik was talking about it before, it sounded like it took forever, it went on and on and on. And he said, "No. I got there, I ran in the other room. I looked around. I came back in. And half a minute later, it was over." Before you even have a chance to decide what you want to do, it's over.

So then he said he helped Nate clean up the mess. They called Brett over to help clean up. They took all the messy stuff away and they threw it in dumpsters and things, and helped Nate carry his mother's body that they rolled up in a rug, put it in the car, and Nate took off and they came home. And said nothing.

ERIK JENSEN: It was at least a couple of hours later before Brett and I were both kind of going, "Somebody's actually dead." Like, there were several times during that night when I thought for sure that his mom was going to get up and, like, be pissed at us because it just did not occur to me that she was actually dead.

NARRATOR: Nathan was arrested a few hours later, standing dazed near his car in an empty parking lot, his mother's body beside him. He was charged as an adult with first degree murder. Erik was charged with destroying evidence and was out on bail under electronic surveillance. But then Brett, who had also helped clean up the crime scene and who had two prior charges against him, made a deal with the prosecution, implicating Erik in the murder by saying that Erik had told him that he, too, hit Julie Ybanez. All of Brett's charges were then dismissed and Erik's charges changed to conspiracy to commit murder and complicity in murder.

PAT JENSEN: When they charged him with murder, they just came to the door and took him away. He was shaking so badly that he could hardly stand up, he was so afraid. Having them take your child away and knowing that you have no control, that there's nothing you can do to protect him from whatever's going to happen, is probably the most helpless, horrible feeling that I've ever had, ever, in my whole life.

NARRATOR: Erik's trial was scheduled first, with discussions going on between his lawyer and the district attorney about a plea bargain. Then it happened.

NEWSCASTER: -rushing up beneath a second floor window to grab this wounded boy.

STUDENT: There was gunshots, and we all got down and we crawled-

STUDENT: He shot this girl outside!

NEWSCASTER: Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado, on the edge of Denver-

NEWSCASTER: This isn't Kosovo, this is Littleton, Colorado, a prosperous suburb of Denver.

ERIK JENSEN: My trial came, like, two, three months after Columbine. And there's no sympathy for rich little suburban white kids who kill.

NEWSCASTER: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold- the killers are much less of a mystery today.

CURT JENSEN: Every day leading up to the trial, including the time of his trial, it was on the news about Columbine every day. Our address is Littleton, Colorado. Our son was named Erik. There was another boy named Eric from Littleton, Colorado, that killed his classmates. Being from the same area, there was no possible way, in my opinion, that he could have gotten a fair trial.

NARRATOR: On August 11, 1999, Erik was found guilty of destroying evidence, conspiracy to commit murder and complicity in murder. He was sentenced to life without parole.

OFRA BIKEL: What did he actually do besides cleaning up?

NATHAN YBANEZ: I don't remember him doing anything. I don't understand why he was even brought to prison at all because he didn't do anything, so I was pretty shocked. But at the time, I was very- I was going to jail myself, and so it was hard to fathom everything that was going on.

NEWSCASTER: Today we're bringing you highlights from Nathan Ybanez's murder trial, held a few months ago in Castle Rock, Colorado. Such a sad story of a young boy gone bad.

NARRATOR: Nathan's trial for first degree murder took place a couple of months later, in the fall of 1999, and lasted three days, including jury selection and the sentencing. It was broadcast and then re-broadcast on national television, with Nathan always presented as "the bad seed."

PROSECUTOR: These kids have a hole in their soul, ladies and gentlemen, and you could drive a truck through it.

NATHAN YBANEZ: At trial, the prosecutor didn't really have a clear motive for me. They said they didn't know why I'd done what I'd done, and they weren't sure if they'd ever really know ever, just seemed to be something without a reason.

OFRA BIKEL: A bad kid.

NATHAN YBANEZ: That's what they thought. I think that they thought I was a bad kid.

NARRATOR: The defense attorney chose not to call any witnesses at all and refuses to comment on the case without a court order.

NATHAN YBANEZ: I think that the lawyer's real job was to make sure that people didn't testify on my behalf and that I didn't get up and say anything about anything that was going on, and that I just went to prison quietly and without much fanfare.

OFRA BIKEL: And that's what happened.

NATHAN YBANEZ: That's what happened, yeah.

NARRATOR: It has been eight years. While the Jensens' weekly visits to Erik continued, there was some change in the political atmosphere. In spite of the dire predictions of the 80s and 90s, teenage crime rates went down. Fear of young offenders seemed to subside somewhat. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for juveniles, and there were some discussions across the country about re-examining the harsh punishments meted out to juvenile offenders.

In Colorado, Pat and Curt Jensen contributed by investing their time and money in a foundation they called Pendulum.

PAT JENSEN: We couldn't stand the thought that there would be other parents going through the same thing, if we could help it. We thought that we would form an organization that would try to change the laws, try to change the way that things were done here, so that no other parent ever had to go through what we went through.

CURT JENSEN: It's been an ongoing battle now for six years, basically for educating the public and for working with the state legislature. It's a battle that only ends when this state legislature and the next governor agree that juveniles have to be treated differently than adults and that they have to be given a second chance.

[www.pbs.org: More on Pendulum Foundation]

NARRATOR: By 2006, after a vigorous campaign by the local media and lobbying by the Pendulum Foundation, a bill sponsored by Republican representative Lynn Hefley finally reached the legislature. The passage of the bill was fraught with tensions. The victims' families were adamantly against it, while the powerful District Attorneys Council agreed only to a watered-down bill which changed the sentence for juveniles from life to 40 years with possible parole at the end. The new law would apply only to future offenders. It would not apply to the 45 juveniles in Colorado already serving life without parole.

Prof. JEFFREY FAGAN, Columbia Law School: The decision not to make it retroactive was probably a compromise, perhaps a political deal. Don't forget, the families of victims are very powerful advocates. One could certainly argue that if you were to make this law retroactive and re-sentence these juveniles to something less than life without parole, that you are taking something away from the families of victims, what they felt was that a sentence that reflected a justice, perhaps a vengeance, that they felt they deserved because of the loss that they suffered. And I can certainly understand the politics of such a thing, of such a deal.

OFRA BIKEL: Do you understand the justice of such a deal?

JEFF FAGAN: Well, that's a very good question. I don't know that I understand the justice of such a deal. I think the politics of criminal punishment in the U.S. often trump issues of justice, so I'll understand it better as a political question than as a justice question.

NARRATOR: Mitch Morrissey, the District Attorney in Denver, fought hard against making the law retroactive. His main reason, he says, was the victims' families..

MITCH MORRISSEY: I have dealt with these families. I have been in these murder scenes. I have personally been involved in handling a lot of these cases. And again, we are talking about, for the most part, juvenile offenders that are some of the worst murderers in the history of the state of Colorado. And I don't think their age has anything to do with it. These are horrendous crimes.

GAIL PALONE: They took lives. They took sons. They took mothers. They took fathers. They took aunts. They took uncles. They took so much away from people, and we can never get it back. Their family gets to go to the prison system and spend Thanksgiving with them. We never got that. We have to go to the cemetery.

NARRATOR: Gail Palone is the mother of a victim of juvenile crime. Her son was killed 10 years ago by then 17-year-old Trevor Jones.

GAIL PALONE: When Trevor was found guilty, they promised us that he would get life in prison with no chance of parole. The state promised us that, and the state should see to it that that's what happens.

NARRATOR: Gail's only child, Matthew Foley, was killed when he was 16.

GAIL PALONE: Matthew was a very giving, kind kid. He was the type of kid that brightened any room when he walked into it. He lived for sports, from the time he was little. I didn't have to worry about him watching violent movies or anything on TV because sports was on our TV all the time. He wanted to go to Notre Dame. He wanted to be a sports journalist. He was just a great kid.

NARRATOR: Trevor Jones did not do as well at that age. When he was 14, he started skipping school, and within the next three years, he drifted into alcohol and drugs. He had a record of several misdemeanor charges for fighting and driving under the influence. Then in November 1996, he saw a chance to make some money off his classmate, Matt Foley. Matt was looking to buy a handgun for his cousin.

GAIL PALONE: I know that his cousin had asked him to go buy a gun. And I know that he was shopping with a friend. And he went to the mall, and they kept paging him- Trevor did. And had- I guess they had already set that up.

NARRATOR: Trevor devised a scheme to con Matt and arranged a meeting in a parking lot.

TREVOR JONES: The scheme was that I would pretend I was going to sell him the gun, and him to give me the money. And then I tell him to let me see the gun again so I could show him something about it. And then I would have both the money and the gun, and then we could leave. It was supposed to be kind of a fool-proof scheme because you can't really go and say, "Hey, I was trying to buy a gun from a guy and he took my money."

OFRA BIKEL: Because it's illegal.

TREVOR JONES: Because it is illegal.

NARRATOR: But it was not fool-proof. Suddenly, Trevor said, the gun discharged.

TREVOR JONES: I didn't really realize what had happened, and then I heard J.P. scream something. And then I realized something really bad had happened.

NARRATOR: He turned around, he said, and ran. He hid outside through the night, then read in the paper that Matt Foley was dead.

TREVOR JONES: It was horrible just knowing I'd shot him. I didn't mean to shoot him at all, and then I find out that he died. And there's really no words to describe it. You know, there's- I really can't put words to it.

GAIL PALONE: The police came to our door. I knew. I knew something was wrong. He was the type of kid that was always home on time. And he had a pager so I could page him, and even if he was on the highway coming home from the movies or something, he would get off the highway to call me. And he never called me back, so I knew.

JENNIFER JONES: The police told us that Matt was dead, but I didn't really know that Trevor was wanted for killing him.

NARRATOR: Jennifer is Trevor Jones's older sister

JENNIFER JONES: And my mom kept saying, "He was friends with Matt, he was friends with Matt." So it was just- it was just kind of confusing. I was trying to keep my mom calm. My dad wasn't there. He was at work. And so I told her, "Just wait and- just wait until you talk to Trevor. You don't know. You don't know what's happened yet." And she was just really scared that he was going to kill himself that night. And we just- we were just on pins and needles until he turned himself in.

NARRATOR: He turned himself in the next morning.

JENNIFER JONES: I went to the jail with my mom to visit Trevor. It was just really sad to see him in the jail. He was really scared. He was 17, and he was in the adult jail.

NARRATOR: Trevor went to trial in June 1997. He was charged as an adult with four crimes- reckless manslaughter, conspiracy to commit robbery, robbery and felony murder. The most serious of the charges was felony murder.

[www.pbs.org: More on Jones's case]

JENNIFER JONES: I was still just so sure that people were going to understand that this was an accident. I was just so sure that they were going to understand that.

NARRATOR: The jury did, in fact, understand and found Trevor guilty of reckless manslaughter. Attorney Kathleen Byrne explains.

KATHLEEN BYRNE, Attorney: The jury thought that it was essentially a very bad accident. That is what reckless manslaughter is.

NARRATOR: But the jury also found him guilty of robbery, which resulted in the charge of felony murder and the punishment of life without parole.

KATHLEEN BYRNE: Felony murder is one form of first degree murder in Colorado. There are various types of first degree murder. The most common, or the most well known, is after deliberation and with intent to cause a death, you cause a death. Felony murder is different in that it is what we call a strict liability crime. So long as you have committed certain acts, it doesn't matter what your intent was.

In the case of felony murder, if you've committed, for example, the crime of robbery, and during that robbery, or immediately thereafter or while you're fleeing from the robbery, the death of a person is caused because of the defendant's conduct, because of the robbery, it doesn't matter who causes that conduct. So long as it is caused in the context of that robbery or the flight from the robbery, then the defendant is responsible for that death.

NARRATOR: Kathleen Byrne is an independent appellate attorney who often works for the state. She represented the state in Trevor's case, defending the conviction of felony murder in his appeal.

KATHLEEN BYRNE: He committed the robbery, which is two to six years, so far as I read the statute. He committed conspiracy to commit robbery, which I think is one to three years. And he committed reckless manslaughter, which I think is two to six years. A trial court could sentence them to run one after another or all at the same time. His sentence could have been between two and fifteen years, the way I calculate it. But because of the felony murder rule, he was convicted of first degree murder, and that's automatic life without parole.

OFRA BIKEL: You mean life without parole, instead of 12 to 15 years at the most, that he could have gotten?

KATHLEEN BYRNE: And that is very- that is just the facts. There's not a shred of opinion in there, that is the fact.

OFRA BIKEL: Do you have an opinion?

KATHLEEN BYRNE: No, I have no opinion. [laughs] It's a very harsh rule. It's a very harsh rule, and I think a lot of people question whether it's an appropriate rule to maintain. It may be time for it to go.

NARRATOR: The felony murder statute has its roots in 12th century English law. It was abolished in England 50 years ago, in part because of public outcry over the unfairness of the punishment.

KATHLEEN BYRNE: The felony murder statute gets challenged all the time on the basis that it's unfair. And every time that it comes up in the appellate courts of Colorado, it is upheld because it is not unconstitutional and it is a matter for the General Assembly to change the law of felony murder. The courts have no choice but to uphold it, at this point.

NARRATOR: Nationwide, it is estimated that a quarter of the young offenders sentenced to life without parole have been convicted of felony murder. It is a law that affects more juveniles than adults, since juveniles tend to act in groups, and felony murder assigns the same culpability to everyone involved in the underlying felony, even if a murder is committed by only one of the group. That's what happened in Colorado Springs in July 1999.

No one knows for sure which of the three suspects killed Kristopher Lohrmeyer.

NEWSCASTER: When officers arrived on the scene, they found one young male that had been shot in the back of the head.

NEWSCASTER: Police suspect it was an attempted carjacking. Lohrmeyer was just leaving work.

NARRATOR: Seventeen-year old Kristopher Lohrmeyer was killed instantly.

NEWSCASTER: Officers did a search of the area and did locate three juveniles who matched the description.

NARRATOR: Two of the three suspects confessed and made a deal for second degree murder in exchange for implicating the third one, Andrew Medina. Medina was held in jail, awaiting trial. He was 15 at the time. The main evidence against him was the word of his co-defendants.

DARREN CANTOR, Defense Attorney: He was such a little kid. He was tiny physically. He was 5-3 maybe 120, 125 at the time. And he was so young emotionally. He's just a very young kid.

SHAWNA GEIGER, Defense Attorney: And it was so upsetting to Andy, who was sitting there, trying so hard to hold it together.

NARRATOR: Darren Cantor and Shawna Geiger were his attorneys.

SHAWNA GEIGER: Andy would call every day and I would talk to him, just trying to keep him emotionally leveled out. And so I remember him very much on an emotional level. And he was really just one of the saddest, smallest, most pathetic children I've represented.

NARRATOR: Andy grew up with a dream of being somebody, but the reality was a learning disability, a difficult father and an overwhelmed young mother.

DARREN CANTOR: Andy had very poor family support. He had a broken family. His father was an alcoholic and came to court a few times, intoxicated and very abusive. His mother had a very difficult time dealing with the proceedings and would sort of be in and out. He was, in essence, abandoned throughout the course of the trial.

DARREN CANTOR: And so now the post-conviction lawyer's got to take it in, and I-

NARRATOR: Geiger and Cantor were appointed by the court after Andy's original lawyer took a step that practically sealed his fate.

DARREN CANTOR: Once the mistake's made, we couldn't undo it. That's the problem. His first attorney had him write, in essence, a letter of apology- "I'm sorry for the death of your son." That's basically what the letter said. And she took that letter to the pastor and gave it to the pastor and said, "Do with this as you see fit." He gave it to the family of the victim, and they gave it to the DAs, and it was used at trial as basically a confession.

NARRATOR: Tom Carberry was his appeal lawyer.

TOM CARBERRY: His original lawyer did the greatest disservice to a client I'd ever seen in my life. She belonged to a church in Colorado Springs, and she found out that the victim was a member of the same church, his family was a member of the same church, and she got Andy to write a letter, or really, she wrote the letter and had Andy write it out longhand. Basically, it was a letter saying, "I apologize. I'm so sorry." It never admitted doing the crime, but it made it clear that he knew about the crime, was involved in the crime, and that's enough for felony murder.

And it's insane. You can't do that. You're a defense attorney, you need to protect your client. Andrew hadn't confessed. He had made no statement to the police. He had a defense of saying, "I wasn't there," and instead he got sent to prison for life.

MOURNER: Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would be speaking at a memorial service for Kris Lohrmeyer at the age of 17-

NARRATOR: The victim, Kristopher Lohrmeyer, was deeply mourned by his family and his community, and no one found solace in Andy Medina's apology.

MOURNER: -senseless, stupid tragedy-

MITCH MORRISSEY, District Attorney, Denver: When you see the consequences of what these juveniles do, and you deal with it, then you understand. When you sentence somebody to prison with life without parole, then that family knows where this person will be for the rest of their life. They don't have to go to repeated parole hearings, time after time, explaining to a parole board, and maybe a new parole board, what it meant to their family to lose their father, to lose their child.

GAIL PALONE: The pain's always there, but you learn to live with it. It never goes away. Ever. You just don't get over it. There's birthdays. There's holidays. Matthew's favorite holiday was Christmas. I missed out on graduations, weddings, babies. All that, Trevor took from me.

TREVOR JONES: Oh, I'm very regretful of who I had become at that time. A lot of shame, a lot of shame that that's who I was out there. So I don't have any good thoughts or good opinions about thinking back on who I was when I was 17.

JENNIFER JONES: We knew Trevor was going to do some time in prison. Nobody ever said he was innocent, and 12 or 15 years seems much more appropriate than automatic life without parole. Nobody even thinks of any mitigating circumstances. Nobody even looks at the fact that he was 17, or that was an accident.

NARRATOR: The victim's family never believed it was an accident.

GAIL PALONE: An accident's an accident. But it wasn't. It was cold-blooded murder, and I don't feel different. I never will feel different.

NARRATOR: Trevor has been in prison for 10 years.

Prof. JEFFREY FAGAN, Columbia Law School: I think we're just starting to get a picture of what an entire generation of young people experience when they're sentenced to life without parole. We know what the families of the victims of their crimes feel, as well. And so we can try and weigh the loss of families, which is quite horrible, against the level of punishment, or the severity of the punishment of juveniles, and make a decision societally about whether we are achieving the goals of justice, retribution, or any other component of punishment, relative to what this punishment really is like when it's experienced.

TREVOR JONES: You're put out in a box somewhere in the middle of nowhere, and that's where they're going to keep you until your life is over. Unfortunately, my mind daydreams about what could be, and then obviously, I have to come to that point where, "Hey, you got to quit daydreaming or imagining those kinds of things because you are stuck in here, and it's going to be forever." Sometimes the actual weight of it all really comes down on you, comes down on me, and you know, get real upset about being stuck here forever.

JENNIFER JONES: It doesn't get less painful with time, it gets worse, actually, because when you're 17 - and I was 19 - you can't explain to people that age what they're- what they're gambling with. You can't explain to them what the rest of their life could be and what it holds. And so as I grow up, and see everything that he's missing and everything he can't do and everything I have to do without him, it's just- it's just painful all the time!

NARRATOR: What Trevor did manage to do, with the financial help of family and friends, was to pursue his education.

OFRA BIKEL: Have you changed, do you think?

TREVOR JONES: Oh, yeah. There's no continuity between the person I was and who I am today. I mean, I was a kid when I got locked up, and I've grown up. I'm a Christian now. That's been very influential. And as a combination of those two, probably, I was able to really pursue higher education. That's done a lot to make me the person I am today.

NARRATOR: He is now studying for the ministry.

GAIL PALONE: You know,