Jacob Christenson arson case: Denver Post backpedals on story, confused about kid stuff

Cloaked in secrecy, juvenile court matters are so rarely covered in Colorado that it's been instructive watching the Denver Post fumble a bit in its reporting on Jacob Christenson, the eleven-year-old in Parker charged with second-degree arson over a fire that caused $195,000 in damages to a neighbor's townhome.

But at the same time, it's troubling to see the daily go beyond simply straightening out a misleading headline and end up "correcting" its reporting to reflect Eighteenth Judicial District Attorney Carol Chambers' spin on the case, which is that this is no big deal and essentially a "civil" matter.

There's no question a correction was needed. The headline on a Bill Johnson column about the case stated that Christenson had been charged as an adult, and that's just wrong. (For the record, the headline on my original post about the case may be a bit misleading, too; it states that Jacob is ten, when that's how old he was when the fire was started last May.) So the paper ran a correction, pointing out that he's been charged with a felony in juvenile court.

But on Friday the Post ran a weird correction to its correction, claiming that the previous blurb "mischaracterized" the nature of the case: "District Attorney Carol Chambers said it would be a felony if committed by an adult but is a civil matter in juvenile courts."

It's true that juvenile cases proceed differently than adult criminal matters. The case is brought "in the interest" of the child, who may be adjudicated as delinquent rather than convicted. And it's also true that the long-term consequences of prosecution as a juvenile are generally not as profound as an adult conviction. It's even possible that Jacob could discharge the staggering restitution he may have to pay in bankruptcy court years from now -- something you can't do if forced to pay restitution as part of an adult criminal conviction. For more on that point, see the eerily similar case of Shea Sweeney I wrote about back in 2006.

But that doesn't make juvenile court a romp in the park. It is quite accurate to say the charge in this case is a felony, and it could have serious consequences for Jacob. Although no one is talking about removing him from his home at this point, a possible penalty in this type of case can be up to two years in a juvenile facility -- so calling it a "civil matter" is deceptive.

It's understandable that Chambers would rather not dwell on the ways the prosecution (or, to use the favored euphemism, "adjudication") of Jacob's case resembles what her office might do with an older offender. It's nice to think that everyone has the kid's best interests in mind and that there's nothing adversarial about what's going on. But for the Post to guzzle the Kool-Aid doesn't make it so.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Carol Chambers and the Jacob Christenson "arson" case: Let's talk."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast