A man who was convicted of helping to kill his friend's mother in Highlands Ranch in 1998 spoke in court after his friends, parents and defense attorneys painted a detailed picture of the strides the inmate has made to lead a positive life.
“I sat 3 feet away from someone who was dying, 3 feet away from her, and I didn't save her,” said Erik Jensen, now 38, who added he at one time glossed over the seriousness of the crime. “I have to add value to the life that Julie Ybanez had.”
In the Douglas County District Court hearing on May 22, a judge decided Jensen, who was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 1999, would be resentenced to life with the possibility of parole after 40 years. The crime was committed when Jensen was 17.
The sentence is still considered as starting in 1999, so Jensen is about 20 years from possible release.
Nathan Ybanez was convicted of killing his mother in her apartment, with Jensen, at age 16, and 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, said Peter Sauer, one of his defense attorneys.
Sauer and other speakers at the hearing in Castle Rock knew that the court only had one option — the sentence it gave May 22 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. But they still presented an overarching message that the state Legislature should give judges the discretion to be even more lenient for those who offend as juveniles.
“I stand here for no other reason than that I believe that Erik deserves a second chance,” Sauer said. “You can count me as another Coloradan that would welcome Erik into my community because he would make it better.”
A case manager in the state Department of Corrections, Bryan Milburn, testified at the hearing that Jensen's last violation of the code of penal conduct — rules inmates must follow — was in 2002.
The defense ran through a laundry list of examples of Jensen's character in prison: He's one of the few inmates at his Limon facility who helps new correctional officers get acclimated. He earned a trainer certification for CrossFit, which has helped bring inmates together across differences. He's a peer assistant who helps when inmates have mental health challenges. He's “a positive leader in the prison community,” Sauer said.
“The arc of his juvenile development is entirely consistent with what we know about the juvenile brain,” Sauer said. “And that is why one act cannot require a juvenile to be locked up for the rest of their lives.”
Erik Jensen told the court he tries to help people because he wants “the value of Julie's life” to continue through him. He espoused lofty ideals about the value of a 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, audibly emotional at times during his address.
Curtis Jensen, Erik's father, said May 22 was the first time the family has been able to speak in court about its son. He spoke along with Patricia, his mother. Curtis Jensen has pushed for change in juvenile sentencing at the Legislature, he told the court.
Judge Theresa Slade said that while she had no choice in what sentence to give, the decision isn't meant to downplay the importance of Jensen's positive actions.
“If I were the (original) sentencing judge, and you had come back before me today, I would say I'm proud of you,” Slade said.
She handed down the new sentence and stipulated he gets 345 days credit for time served before his 1999 sentence.
“Good luck, Mr. Jensen,” she said.
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