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Carol Chambers and the Jacob Christenson "arson" case: Let's talk

Prosecutors are fickle creatures. Ask them about some case that isn't high-profile enough to make headlines, and they'll probably tell you that they can't discuss it -- and it's none of your business anyway.

But sic a few TV cameras and talk shows on them, and of course they're happy to discuss their decisions; it's their sacred duty , by gum.

That seems to be what's happened in the case of Jacob Christenson, who faces a second-degree arson charge in Douglas County for a fire set last May, when he was ten. As first reported here last Friday, Jacob and a pal were playing around with a lighter and lit a paper; it got thrown into a bush when it started to burn his friend's hand, then ignited a townhome, causing $195,000 in damages.

When I made repeated calls to the office of Eighteenth Judicial District Attorney Carol Chambers, seeking comment from someone who could justify or at least explain why the circumstances merited a charge that states the juveniles "knowingly" set the house on fire, I couldn't get a return call for days and days and...never, actually.

But now that the story has spread around a bit -- across the TV stations and the Denver Post, a pundit's column and a couple of days of talk-radio fare at KHOW -- Chambers is speaking out about the whole mess, defending the charge and expressing bafflement that Jacob and his mom,Tina, went to the press rather than simply pleading guilty and taking their medicine.

In radio interviews, Chambers has contended that the whole thing would have just ended up in a diversion program and restitution, with no hard time for Jacob -- so what's the big deal? But Tina Christenson says her son was offered the program only if he pleaded guilty; she didn't want him to be saddled with the felony plea, sealed or not (as well as crushing restitution), for the rest of his life. The case is scheduled to go to trial in juvenile court next month.

Yet this discussion has, for the most part, neatly sidestepped my original (and still unanswered) question: Why the second-degree arson charge? A misdemeanor charge, one that suggests negligence rather than an intentional felonious act, could also lead to a diversion program, if that's the goal. But Chambers's office is notorious for overcharging cases in order to pummel defendants into unfavorable plea bargains.

Her frequent filing of habitual criminal charges against low-level but chronic offenders, so that some junkie who walks away from a halfway house and gets caught shoplifting is suddenly looking at 48 years, is one result of that stance. And she's done it in the case of a ten-year-old kid because she can.

Or can she? The media spotlight on Jacob's case may have little or no bearing on its outcome. The people dialing up talk shows and weighing in on blogs to present their own views on what constitutes appropriate punishment won't determine justice for Jacob, nor should they.

But it's nice to find prosecutors having to talk about what they're doing at last.

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