This Boy's Life

Joshua Beckius was only sixteen when he accepted a plea bargain for a crime he now says he didn't commit. Will the court let him take his case to trial?

Joshua Beckius is 21 years old and living in limbo. When he was sixteen, he received a forty-year sentence for second-degree murder and was immediately placed among adult prisoners in the Buena Vista Correctional Facility. There, he attacked another inmate. The next stop was the Colorado State Penitentiary, where he has spent the last two years in solitary confinement.

Beckius has come of age in Colorado's prison system.

In 1995, Beckius pleaded guilty to a two-year-old crime: the murder, on April 27, 1993, of Dayton Leslie James, manager of the Basemar Cinema Savers in Boulder. Beckius, who was fourteen at the time of the slaying, is now asking to have his plea bargain set aside on the grounds that his attorney -- the highly respected Patrick H. Furman, who teaches at the University of Colorado law school and who currently represents Patsy Ramsey -- provided ineffective representation. Beckius says Furman pressured him into entering a plea before he had even been charged. He wants to go to trial.

Life in the best lane: On February 17, Jim Lambert had his friends on pins and needles.
Life in the best lane: On February 17, Jim Lambert had his friends on pins and needles.
Dayton James died at the Basemar Cinema Savers on April 27, 1993.
Dayton James died at the Basemar Cinema Savers on April 27, 1993.

The court had appointed Furman to represent Beckius because the public defender's office was representing a co-defendant. Furman visited his client at the Mountview Youth Services Center in Lakewood hours after taking the case, accompanied by two detectives and Boulder prosecutor Pete Hofstrom, with whom he had already hammered out a plea bargain. But when Furman sat down alone with Beckius, there was a snag: Beckius denied any involvement in the crime.

"Furman accused me of lying to him," Beckius says. He is sitting in a visiting room at Boulder County Jail, where he is awaiting a hearing on his request to reopen his case. "He said he'd read the affidavit for arrest on the way down...He kept telling me there was no way he could represent me in trial, no way I could beat this. I would be found guilty and spend the rest of my natural life in prison."

Furman declines to discuss the case, since it is now in litigation.

Beckius responds to questions with polite attention, his answers direct, concise, stripped of ornament and emotion, giving away nothing. He's a careful listener, intelligent, observant, perhaps calculating. His speech is quiet and carries the trace of a Mexican accent, but despite his dark hair, Beckius doesn't look Mexican. He's tall and slim, with a slight oriental cast to his eyes. Every now and then, he seems to connect to something in the conversation, and then his grin is infectious, almost sweet. You can see the sixteen-year-old whom a tutor at Buena Vista called "an easy kid to like."

But you can also see the defiant teen who hung out with gang members and had innumerable brushes with the law -- for running away from home, theft, assault, drug and alcohol abuse -- until the day he was implicated in a murder.

Beckius has been advised by his current lawyer, Neil Silver, not to talk about his legal problems, but he does have a few things to say about life in prison.

"I knew it was going to be a hostile environment every day," he says of Buena Vista. "Since I was sixteen and a little kid, I figured I was gonna be the...prey, I guess you could say."

He pauses. "I had my problems...but I just kind of let them know that if they wanted something they were going to have to try to take it. It's not gonna be as easy as they may think."

At first, Beckius did well in Buena Vista. He obtained his GED and worked as a clerk and as an assistant to tutor Jennifer Wynne for several months. "He was very young," Wynne remembers. "He didn't have the background, but he was eager to learn, to go back and redo things and ask questions." Did she feel that Josh was a bad kid? "I know he's done some hard things in his life," she responds carefully. "But I don't know if that makes him a hard person."

Beckius smiles at the mention of his classes with Wynne. "She made time easier," he says. "It was a joy just to go to work every day."

But then he attacked a fellow inmate in the shower, breaking the man's nose. The man had insulted him, Beckius says. "He was in for child molestation. If I didn't do anything about it, then everybody's gonna think I'm a punk."

He was sent to the Colorado State Penitentiary.

In CSP, he spent 23 hours a day in a cell where the lights never went out. Meals were pushed through a slot, and inmates could call to each other through the mesh openings in their doors. They were allowed one hour a day outside their cells, alone in a room with a pull-up bar, nothing more. At one point, CSP instituted a "lockdown."

"They took away our hour out," Beckius says. "They took away our showers for a week. I got mad they would take away our showers, and so I covered up my windows where they couldn't see me. They went and dressed up in riot gear and came and extracted all of us. Five cops came in, and the first cop had an electric shield in front of him. They wrestled me to the ground and I wouldn't let them handcuff me. They used the taser on the shield to shock me and I started kicking from the electric shock. They said I assaulted a cop. It was more like them assaulting me."

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