When Kids Get Life

Stories from Frontline 2007

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

 

Jacob Ind: He killed his parents after years of abuse, but even some of the jurors who convicted him wonder if he deserved life without parole.

On Dec. 17, 1992, 15-year-old Jacob Ind went to school after a mostly sleepless night. In the early hours of that morning, he had murdered his mother and stepfather, Pamela and Kermode Jordan. He planned to tell a friend about the crime and then commit suicide. But his friend told the principal, who called the police.

According to Jacob's brother, Charles, the murders were the culmination of years of abuse by their parents. Jacob told FRONTLINE that he began thinking about killing his parents when he was "12 or 13" years old. "What basically put me towards the path is I saw no way out," he said.

Even after the killings, Jacob seemed detached from the reality of what he'd done. "I didn't really grasp the permanency of their deaths," he told FRONTLINE. "I definitely didn't understand the gravity of what it means to kill somebody. I mean, I didn't think they'd feel pain. I didn't think that anybody else would be affected."

"I remember I was sitting in the police station -- and this is how out of touch of 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!"

Jacob's trial began on May 12, 1994. His lawyers argued that he had acted in self-defense, killing his parents to put a stop to years of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. The defense called Jacob's older brother, Charles, who testified that both boys had been molested by their stepfather.

"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," Charles told FRONTLINE.

Referring to the boys' molestation at the hands of their stepfather, Kermode, Charles said: "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 us across the face and body and say, 'Get on the toilet,' and he would pull the ropes out from underneath the credenza."

Jacob has kept silent about any sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of Kermode. For him, what was as damaging, if not more, was the emotional battering he suffered from his mother. "That's the one thing I wanted more than anything, was somehow to earn her love," Jacob told FRONTLINE. "I mean, there's times she made it absolutely clear that she hated me, basically. And as a child, that is more hurtful than getting hit across the face or getting beaten."

The defense, however, did not call Jacob to testify on his own behalf, worried that he would do more harm than good. "His demeanor at trial, due to the fact that he was an abuse victim, was flat," defense attorney Shaun Kaufman told journalist Alan Prendergast in 1998. "He wouldn't have been a fabulous advocate. He wouldn't have cried for his parents. He wouldn't have shown any remorse."

Another obstacle for the defense was the fact that Jacob had offered a schoolmate -- a 17-year-old loner named Gabrial Adams who wore military clothes to school and considered himself a martial arts master -- $2,000, which he did not have, to kill his parents while he was sleeping. "It was supposed to be two shots, quick and painless," Jacob told Evan Dreyer of the Denver Post in 2000.

But Adams botched the job, and Jacob, awakened by the gunshots and the ensuing struggle, fired the fatal shots using his stepfather's .357 Magnum revolver.

Attorney Paul Mones, who specializes in defending children who have killed their parents, says that accomplices make defending parricide cases that much more difficult. "When you have somebody come along with you or you hire somebody, ... the arguments that you can make -- that it's solely abuse-driven or the kid had no recourse to get help -- are much more difficult."

On June 17, 1994, Jacob was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder. As a juvenile, he was not eligible for the death penalty; instead, he was given a mandatory sentence of life without parole. (In a separate trial in December 1994, Gabrial Adams was also sentenced to life without parole.)

Mary Ellen Johnson, a Woodland Park author who consulted for the defense, argues Jacob's counsel should have done more. After the trial Johnson wrote a book, The Murder of Jacob, charging that school officials, social workers and both the prosecution and defense didn't do enough to investigate Jacob's abuse at home.

According to Prendergast's article, at least three jurors have approached Johnson or other Ind supporters, saying that more information about Jacob's home life might have swayed their votes. One of those jurors, Patricia Scott, has said that she did not realize that a guilty verdict would trigger an automatic sentence of life without parole. In Colorado, jurors are instructed not to consider sentencing when weighing a verdict.

Of the 14 years that Jacob has spent in prison thus far, eight of them were spent in the state supermax, Colorado State Penitentiary, where he spent 23 hours a day in solitary confinement. He was sent there in 1995 after prison officials found contraband in his cell: a rope he claims he was using as a clothesline and a sharpened piece of rebar he says he kept to defend himself from other prisoners.

For his part, Jacob's view of his crime and punishment has evolved during his time in prison. "I don't second-guess what I did, not one bit," he told the Denver Post in 2000. "I'm happier now than I could imagine anyone ever being."

At that time, he even said that he enjoyed his supermax detention, during which he had earned a bachelor's degree in biblical studies.

But the reality of his crime and his sentence seemed to have set in by the time FRONTLINE interviewed Jacob in 2007. "When I was younger, when I knew how much it would hurt to face my responsibility, I'd try to blame it on my parents by saying, well, if they didn't do this to me, ... I wouldn't have had to kill them," he said. "I can't blame my parents for my family's pain, for me being here. I can only blame myself and the fact that I wasn't strong enough to stand up against them."

But Mary Ellen Johnson, who has continued to work on Jacob's behalf, hears in his acceptance of responsibility echoes of the abuse he suffered. "I think for Jacob to say that he's weak and ... that what happened to him wasn't so bad, I think he hears his parents' voice inside of him," she told FRONTLINE. "And to me the system is exactly like his parents. So he just traded one horror for another, because in the prison system they have all sorts of rules and regulations that make no sense. ... And that's exactly what his parents did."

Jacob also sees his time in the supermax differently in retrospect. "At the time, you get used to it, and it doesn't seem that bad. Now, when I think back at it, it seems like total hell," he told FRONTLINE. "Because thinking back on it, it's like almost thinking back on my childhood. It's like pure terror. It's like, oh, no, I don't even want to go back there. But at the time, it's what I needed to heal myself."


Andrew Medina: A player in a botched carjacking, he was only 15 when he was charged with first-degree murder and imprisoned; now he's serving time at Colorado's maximum-security facility.

It was around 11 p.m. on July 15, 1999, and 17-year-old Kristopher Lohrmeyer had just finished his shift at the Colorado City Creamery, a popular ice cream parlor. He got into his car, which was parked behind the store. A stranger -- Michael Brown, also 17 -- approached him, asking for a ride. Then Andrew (Andy) Medina, 15, and Derrick Miller appeared, demanding his money and car keys. Someone fired a shot through the car's open back window; Kristopher was shot dead.

Michael and Derrick ran away, but witnesses had seen them loitering in the parking lot, and police arrested them about an hour later. The two boys confessed to police during videotaped interrogation sessions that lasted nearly until dawn. They named Andy as the third co-defendant -- and the shooter. Andy's mother, Sandra Medina, refused to let him talk to police.

In Derrick's confession, he couldn't even remember Andy's name, repeatedly calling him Anthony. According to the three boys' testimony, they barely knew each other. They had developed a carjacking scheme to make some quick money and headed to Andy's house, where Derrick and Michael later told police they picked up bandanas and a pair of stolen handguns: a .22 caliber pistol and a .357 Magnum. That night, they picked the lot behind the Colorado City Creamery ice cream parlor as the place to carry out their plan.

All three defendants lived mostly on the streets, rarely if ever attended school, and were using drugs. They were held without bail following their arrest, and a judge at a preliminary hearing ruled there was probable cause to charge all three as adults with first-degree murder.

It was at this point that Andy's fate diverged from that of his two co-carjackers. Following a failed attempt to invalidate Derrick's taped confession, his lawyer urged him to plead guilty to second-degree murder for a sentence of 75 years, with the possibility of parole in roughly 35 years. Michael's lawyer struck a similar deal for 70 years. In exchange, both implicated Andy as the one who fired the fatal shot.

Pinning the shooting on Andy was not technically necessary to win a conviction. Under Colorado's felony murder rule, he could be found guilty of first-degree murder for simply participating in a violent felony that led to a death, even if he didn't directly cause the death. But clear testimony about what happened that night bolstered the case against Andy, and it meant prosecutors had no need to offer him a plea deal. Of the three, Andy alone would stand trial on the charge of first-degree murder, which carried a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

Frontline was not allowed to interview Andy because he is now jailed in Colorado's maximum-security prison. However, Human Rights Watch was granted an interview with Andy in 2004. "I knew my charges were very serious," Andy told them. "But then it just hadn't kicked in."

Andy's appellate lawyer told FRONTLINE his first public defender compromised his chances of an acquittal or plea bargain. Realizing she was affiliated with the same church as the victim's family, she helped Andy write a letter of apology for the church's pastor to deliver. The Lohrmeyers turned the letter over to the district attorney, who used it as a de facto confession.

Andy was granted new lawyers, but the letter was still admitted as evidence when he went to trial in May of 2001. During the trial, Derrick testified that Andy had fired the fatal shot through the back window of Kristopher's car. Michael, however, changed his story, testifying that he was the one who'd provided the guns and fired the fatal shot; both he and Andy had gun residue on their hands when they were arrested. Prosecutors responded that this new story was Michael's attempt to avoid being labeled a snitch in jail and that because of the felony murder charge, it wasn't necessary for jurors to be sure that Andy was the triggerman.

After a brief deliberation, the jury found Andy guilty of robbery charges and first-degree murder. A juror told the Colorado Springs Gazette that only half of them thought Andy was the shooter, but the jury was able to convict based on felony murder. Andy and his mother both sobbed when the verdict was announced. "I was devastated, I was crushed," Sandra Medina told FRONTLINE. "It totally changed my life."

Andy is now pursuing an appeal based on ineffective assistance of counsel, citing the apology letter. For unclear reasons, Andy, who has been in prison for nearly eight years from the time of his first arrest, is now jailed at the Colorado State Penitentiary, the state's "supermax" high-security prison. Andy was transferred to the supermax roughly a year after his sentencing, when prison officials claimed he was the leader of a gang that had started a riot.

Andy explained the sequence of events as best he understands them to Human Rights Watch: "They were doing a routine shakedown of our cell. ... I guess they found some contraband, ... so they end up giving me twenty days punitive [solitary confinement]. I was getting ready to go back in the population. ... All the beds were filled up so they were waiting for somebody to get in trouble, go to segregation, before I could go back out there. Then out of the blue, I'm ready to go, and they serve me ... papers saying, we got confidential information that you're involved with this security group [gang]. ... I didn't understand, you know? It just came out of the blue."

Andy's lawyer says he has no tattoos or gang symbols and that it's ludicrous to think that a teenager could head a prison gang. But when Andy sent a letter asking to involve his lawyer in a review of the transfer decision, he was told no private counsel are permitted to intervene in the process and that its proceedings are confidential.

The state says Andy has not made enough progress to transfer back to a lower-security prison. Over the course of more than four years in the supermax, his lawyer says he's developed twitches and become demoralized. Andy's mother lamented the limits imposed on their visits: "I can't hug him or give him a kiss on the cheek or buy him a pop or a snack or anything, no. He's alive, but it feels like he's not," she told FRONTLINE.

Andy maintains that's he's changed a lot since the carjacking, that he now steers clear of drugs, and that if he is ever freed, he'd like to work with at-risk youth. "If you'd known me back then," he told Human Rights Watch, "[I was a different] person -- just the way I talk and the way I am -- the way I carry myself. I don't know, maybe it's just what I've experienced. I know a lot of people, they say you have to do things to change, but I don't think that's true. I think a person's change ... just happens. And it's happened to me."


Nathan Ybanez and Erik Jensen: Erik was there when Nate killed his mother after years of abuse; Nate says Erik didn't do anything, but they're both serving life without parole for her death.

By the time 14-year-old Nathan Ybanez moved to Highlands Ranch, Colo., in 1996, his family had left a trail of over 30 different addresses. Nate, his strict evangelical Christian mother Julie and his father Roger bounced from Iowa to Germany to Virginia to Illinois, steered by Roger's capricious career ambitions -- insurance salesman, baker, golf pro -- and the volatility of the couple's marriage.

But moving to a new city never fixed the underlying tensions in the Ybanez family. "Both of my parents were unhappy, I think. My father, he was kind of a violent man at times. And my mother, she was unstable," Nate told FRONTLINE. "It was hard to tell what kind of a mood she was going to be in and how she would react to things."

He feared his father's violent temper, but Nate told FRONTLINE that his relationship with his mother was the source of even greater suffering and confusion. Julie was extremely controlling of his behavior -- she was known to tap his phone and follow him when he went out -- and her emotional instability led to a warped and abusive relationship with her son. She would call Nate when he was out with friends, begging him to come home to comfort her, Nate recalled. "A lot of times she would bring that down to the level [of], you know, you don't want to come home because you don't love me, or stuff like that," he told FRONTLINE.

When Roger was away, Julie's neediness grew into sexual abuse. "A lot of times it would happen like this," Nate told FRONTLINE. "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 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."

"I knew that it wasn't right, but I wasn't sure about my place in the whole area of what was going on with my family and the world in general. I'd been kept apart from a lot of outside things," Nate added. "These kind of things [sexual abuse] make me feel like I wish I could cut off my own skin. That's how I feel. Even today. So I don't like talking about them."

Nate had always had difficulty making friends. But working in a Highlands Ranch pizzeria, he met Brett Baker. Brett introduced him to Erik Jensen, and the pair invited Nate to become the new guitarist in their punk rock band, Troublebound.

Erik, the oldest child of a well-to-do venture capitalist, lived in a big house where Troublebound got together to practice. Nate became a regular at Erik's house.

It was not long before and Erik and his parents began to suspect that Nate was having trouble at home. Erik told FRONTLINE that what Nate was experiencing wasn't "normal teen angst, where he's not happy that he didn't get to go to the Homecoming game. He's not happy that something really bad's happening to him."

Nate was reluctant to talk about his home situation with anyone. "With my close friends, they knew that I had a lot of problems in my family," he told FRONTLINE, "but I tried to keep everything away from [them]. I didn't like talking about any of this stuff because it's embarrassing. I just wanted to be seen as a normal person."

But Nate's home situation made normal impossible. Erik and Brett, who were embarrassed to ask Nate about the problems they suspected, asked their parents to try to intervene. The parents were concerned enough to contact a social worker, but no caseworker was ever assigned to investigate. The Jensens say they were told social services didn't have the resources to take care of after teenage boys who should be able to look out for themselves. The agency has denied that that is their policy. "I think he gave up on the system and he gave up on anybody else helping him besides himself," Erik told FRONTLINE.

Nate began drinking heavily. "I was into doing some drugs that I shouldn't have been doing. And I was drinking exceptionally a lot," he told FRONTLINE. "For me it was like I felt like I had to drink, like it was the only way to maintain."

On June 5th, 1996, Julie told Nate that she was sending him to a Christian boot camp in Missouri. Nate was terrified by this prospect. "It seemed to me that something had to happen -- had to happen that day," he told FRONTLINE.

That night, Erik, high on marijuana, picked Nate up after his shift at Einsten Bros. Bagels, and the pair drove to Nate's place. Nate went up and told Erik to check on him if he wasn't back in 20 minutes.

No one knows exactly what happened in the Ybanez's apartment that night. When Nate hadn't reappeared 20 minutes later, Erik went up to the apartment, and Julie let him in. Erik says he went to wait in Nate's bedroom, but then began to hear the sounds of an argument -- people "fighting to the death," he later said on the stand -- and came out when Nate called for him to bring some plastic wrap.

Erik walked into a bloody scene -- Nate had beaten his mother over the head with a pair of fireplace tongs and was attempting to strangle her. Stoned and shocked by the gore, Erik says he doesn't clearly know what happened next, but he thinks he collapsed onto the bloody carpet after Nate handed him the tongs.

Julie died from suffocation after Nate choked her with the tongs. Then the boys called Brett Baker to help clean up and help dispose of the evidence in dumpsters. They also threw away some of Julie's things to make it seem like she and Nate had skipped town.

Looking back on that night, Erik told FRONTLINE, "I basically just went along with the flow, and I think Nate did, too. Once the floodgate came down -- and all that stuff that happened to him all came out at once -- he was just rolling along like I was." 

The next morning, a police officer on patrol spotted Nate in a public park, standing over his mother's body. "I was kind of blank afterwards," Nate told FRONTLINE about that time. "Not really relief, but just -- I don't know. ... You're just blank. You're just existing." Nate was charged as an adult with first-degree murder.

Erik and Brett were arrested a few days later, charged as accessories in the murder. Both were released on bail.

But nearly two months later, the police re-arrested Erik and charged him as an adult with first-degree murder, based on testimony Brett Baker agreed to give as part of a plea bargain. Brett told prosecutors that Erik knew in advance about the murder and had told him he hit Julie with the tongs three times.

In exchange for this testimony, the prosecution gave Brett total immunity from charges in the murder, shortened the sentence he was serving in a juvenile facility for earlier charges of harassment and reckless endangerment, and agreed not to revoke his probation stemming from other previous charges.

Erik went on trial first, in August 1999. After plea negotiations for second-degree murder fell through in the wake of the Columbine school shootings, Erik's attorney argued that his client was too high to be cognizant of what was going on that night. The jury rejected Erik's marijuana defense and convicted him of first-degree murder, which in Colorado carries a mandatory sentence of life without parole at that time.

Nate's trial, which commenced in October 1999 and was televised on Court TV, lasted less than three days. In many instances, juveniles charged with serious crimes are assigned a guardian ad litum, an independent legal advisor. But in Nate's case, his father was allowed to advise him and pay for his counsel, despite a clear conflict of interest and allegations of abuse. The tension between father and son was made publicly evident by an audio tape played during a motion to throw out Nate's confession, in which Roger is heard cursing him angrily before storming out of the room.

Nate's attorney called no witnesses during the trial. He based his defense on the argument that Nate's friends had corrupted him into thinking he was being abused and that Erik provided the spark that turned talk about killing Julie into a reality. In his closing arguments, Nate's counsel acknowledged that Nate had killed his mother but asked jurors to find him guilty of second-degree murder. The jury convicted Nate of first-degree murder, carrying a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

Nate is currently planning to appeal his conviction based on ineffective assistance of counsel. Erik is currently preparing an appeal to the Colorado supreme court.

In prison, Nate has earned his GED and practices meditation. "I'm better in prison than I was when I was free," Nate told FRONTLINE, comparing prison to his home life. He and Erik have also both developed their writing and visual art talents while serving time.

Erik has begun writing fantasy novels; his parents recently published the first in a trilogy he's completing. He also started a Web site called the Next Day Foundation that counsels abused teens. His parents, who visit every week, formed the Pendulum Foundation to bring attention to juvenile justice issues.

Nate and Erik write each other occasionally. "We write each other about every six months," Erik told FRONTLINE. "[Nate's] really into physics and philosophy and stuff, so we trade back theories here and there and stuff. We don't really talk about prison too much, because there's not a whole lot to say. We do the same thing every day."

Erik and Nate worry that they will not be able to survive forever in prison if all their avenues of appeal should fail. "Slowly and ceaselessly, this prison system is destroying those good, human qualities I still possess," Nate wrote in an excerpt of his journal published by the Rocky Mountain News. "If the truly important parts of myself get taken, I hope I will have awareness enough to kill myself."

Erik echoed this sentiment. "In ten years, I'll either be on the streets or dead," he told FRONTLINE. "It's just not worth it to go on here. It's like a mockery, really. It would make me feel like I've let myself down."

 

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