Erik Jensen speaks emotionally about sitting just feet away from his friend's mother as she was dying, and deciding not to save her.
In a court hearing in May, more than 20 years after the crime, Jensen said: “I have to add value to the life that Julie Ybanez had.”
Nathan Ybanez was convicted of killing his mother in 1998 in her Highlands Ranch apartment at age 16. Jensen was 17 at the time of the crime. Ybanez has said his parents emotionally, physically and sexually abused him. Former Gov. John Hickenlooper granted him a commutation that makes him eligible for parole in December 2020, citing Ybanez's positive conduct as an inmate.
But Jensen didn't receive that chance at freedom — until now.
Jensen is one of eight people who received clemency from Gov. Jared Polis, his office announced in a Dec. 23 news release.
“As of the date of this letter, you have served over 21 years in prison,” Polis wrote in a Dec. 20 letter to Jensen. “The crimes you were convicted of are serious. Nonetheless, I believe you deserve parole for several reasons.”
Jensen assisted Ybanez in a physical struggle that ended with Ybanez strangling his mother. Jensen also helped him clean up the crime scene afterward.
Jensen was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 1999. Since then, he has earned an associate's degree and further pursued a bachelor's degree, co-founded a faith-based counseling program for inmates, started a CrossFit addiction-recovery program, and even pursued interests in art and physics, Polis' letter noted. Jensen has been known to help when inmates have mental health challenges, according to the May court hearing.
“Your case manager described you as a model inmate and testified that he would have no concerns if you were to move in next door to him,” Polis' letter said.
In the Douglas County District Court hearing in May, a judge decided Jensen would be resentenced to life with the possibility of parole after 40 years.
Polis' commutation means Jensen was to be eligible for parole immediately and must be released by March 1. Polis commuted his sentence to 25 years' imprisonment. The sentence began in 1999, so Jensen had served about 20 years and faced about 20 more, before Polis' order.
The court's May 22 sentence was mandatory based on a 2018 Colorado Supreme Court ruling that upheld a law allowing judges to reduce life sentences without parole for inmates who committed crimes as juveniles.
At that hearing, speakers presented an overarching message that the state Legislature should give judges the discretion to be even more lenient for those who offend as juveniles, with at least one referencing the arc of juvenile brain development and how Jensen improved himself.
Jensen spoke at that court proceeding, too, espousing lofty ideals about the value of people's lives continuing after they die, about holding each other accountable and “really, really loving each other.”
“I want to be a part of that,” Jensen said at the time.
In deciding to commute Jensen's sentence, Polis also considered that Jensen has taken “full accountability” for his actions and has a “strong support network” of family and friends to help him transition from prison.
Polis also granted commutations to William Hoover Jr. and Abron Arrington, and he granted pardons to Eric Edelstein, John Furniss, Brandon Burke, Jamie Matthews and Ingrid Encalada LaTorre, according to the news release.
“These decisions were not taken lightly and were made after careful consideration of each individual case,” Polis said in the release. “These are people looking for a second chance and the opportunity to move beyond the mistakes from their past. They have taken important steps to turn their lives around and shown remorse for their actions.”
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