In for Life

The files of the Pendulum Foundation overflow with cases of people convicted of committing crimes when they were juveniles and who are now in prison for life. Many of those crimes were less gruesome, and much less cut-and-dried, than the murder of Julie Ybanez.

Back in 1991, a sixteen-year-old black kid named Dietrick Mitchell, who'd been drinking beer, took a joyride in a car he wasn't supposed to have. While driving a fourteen-year-old from Park Hill to Aurora, he struck and killed sixteen-year-old Danny Goetsch.

The fourteen-year-old testified that Mitchell intentionally struck the pedestrian. Mitchell was identified as a gang member -- although his family insists he wasn't, and neither was Goetsch -- and the accident was portrayed as a gangland killing. Mitchell was prosecuted as an adult, convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.

In 1996, Trevor Jones shot and killed a sixteen-year-old boy in Denver. The victim thought he was buying a gun from Jones; Jones wanted to keep both the gun and the victim's money. After the sale, he offered to show the victim how to load it. The victim passed the gun to Jones, and it went off. Both Jones and his friends testified that he didn't mean to kill anyone. But Jones was prosecuted as an adult, convicted of first-degree murder, and sentenced to life without parole.

In 1999, two white teens and fifteen-year-old Andrew Medina botched a carjacking in Colorado Springs. A bullet allegedly from Medina's gun went through the rear window of the vehicle and into the back of Kristopher Lohrmeyer's head. Lohrmeyer was killed, and Medina, who had gun residue on his hands, was charged as an adult with first-degree murder. One of the white kids, a seventeen-year-old, also had gun residue on his hands; he was charged with second-degree murder, and testified against Medina as part of his plea. The white kid got seventy years. Medina is in prison for life.

Medina's new attorney, Tom Carberry, says the case rings of racism.

According to Alison Parker of Human Rights Watch, for every 10,000 people between ages fourteen and seventeen in Colorado, .64 white kids are in prison for life, 2.74 Latino kids are serving the same sentence, and 10.7 black kids are locked up with no hope of ever getting out.

Part of the evidence that convicted Medina was a letter the boy had written the victim's family, which his public defender delivered to a pastor in order to arrange a meeting. Instead, the family turned the letter over to the district attorney, and it was used against Medina in trial.

"I've never seen a case where you're convicted by your own lawyer," says Carberry. "He had a chance of winning this trial."

Those are just three of the cases Pendulum executive director Mary Ellen Johnson has chronicled. There are at least 44 more in her files, including those of Erik Jensen and Nate Ybanez. Her son is now representing Ybanez in his quest for a new trial.

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Luke Turf