Colorado Supreme Court to decide fate of juvenile lifers

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Erik Jensen
Erik Jensen, in his 30's now, was sentenced to life without parole when he was 17 for his part in a murder.

Erik Jensen has grown up in prison.

He was a 120-pound teenager when he was sentenced to life without parole. Today, he’s a full-grown adult who could spend the rest of his life behind bars.

But Jensen may get a chance to change that. Two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled sentences like Jensen’s are cruel and unusual punishment. The justices ruled that children have “diminished culpability” and “greater prospects for reform.” And today, Colorado's Supreme Court considers Jensen’s case and the cases of two other juvenile offenders sentenced to life without parole. The justices will weigh whether Jensen and others are entitled to resentencing hearings, among other things.

Jensen, who’s an inmate at the Limon Correctional Facility southeast of Denver, believes there are good reasons why children should be punished differently from adults. But he says the real question is how exactly to do that.

"Where do we meet in the middle where there’s still punishment but it’s not something that assumes that a 17-year old knows the same thing that a 45-year old does,” Jensen says.

In 1998, when Jensen was 17, he was convicted for his role in the murder of Julie Ybanez. Jensen says he walked in on his friend, Nathan Ybanez, as Ybanez was murdering his mother. Jensen says he helped dispose of the evidence and move the body. There remain questions about whether Jensen was involved in the killing or just took part in covering it up.

There are 49 prisoners in Colorado and 2,500 across the country serving life without parole for crimes they committed when they were juveniles. It’s no longer legal in Colorado to sentence juveniles to life without parole. The current law requires parole after 40 years, but the 49 weren’t grandfathered in when the law changed.

For now, Erik Jensen and the others are in legal limbo. Still, Jensen says he’s hoping for a chance to one day live in the outside world.

“You know a lot of people fantasize about having a million dollars or whatever,” Jensen says. "I think about sitting in rush hour traffic and how people out there think this is the worse part of my day, and I [will] think this is awesome.”

There’s no indication when the state Supreme Court will make a decision on Jensen’s case and the two other cases being considered.