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DENVER – The court case involving the 16-year-old Denver girl who is accused of killing her 7-year-old nephew in August has rekindled discussions in Colorado over whether teenagers accused of serious felonies, such as murder, should be charged as adults or as juveniles.
A judge will decide after a January 2019 reverse transfer hearing whether to continue to try 16-year-old Jennie Bunsom in district court as an adult or to send her case back to juvenile court, which her defense attorneys have requested.
Denver District Attorney Beth McCann direct-filed adult charges of first-degree murder after deliberation and first-degree murder by a person in a position of trust against Bunsom in August in connection with the death of her 7-year-old nephew, Jordan Vong.
But at the reverse transfer hearing, her attorneys will get to discuss Bunsom’s emotional and mental well-being in front of a judge, who will then decide if she is fit for adult charges.
The Bunsom case has reinvigorated discussions of whether teenagers should face the same penalties as adults for committing crimes like murder, or if they should face lesser penalties because their brains and emotions are not fully developed.
“It is absolutely one of the most difficult parts of the DA’s job – to make a decision that may send a tender-aged person into an adult prison,” said former Adams County District Attorney Bob Grant. He says that one of the considerations that should be taken into account when determining what kind of charges and sentence a juvenile will face is the seriousness of the crime and its effect on the victim and their family.
“It’s one thing to make a mistake and pick up a candy bar and walk out of the store,” he said, “but it’s another thing to pick up a gun and shoot someone.”
Apryl Alexander, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Denver’s School of Psychology, says the brains of adults and adolescents are vastly different and can’t be treated the same. She is an expert on the forensic assessment of the brain and says that juveniles are more likely to be rehabilitated than adults.
“We’re starting to take a different lens in our approach for juveniles in the justice system,” she said.
Colorado changed its laws in 2006 so that juveniles who are convicted of murder can’t be sentenced to life in prison without parole, but several juveniles who received such a sentence prior to that were still stuck behind bars for the rest of their lives.
Until last year, Trevor Jones was one of 31 inmates in Colorado who still fell into that category. He received a life sentence without the possibility of parole after he confessed to killing 16-year-old Matt Foley in 1996, though he called the shooting accidental.
In 2017, Jones was resentenced to 42 years in prison, so he no longer faces life without parole. He will be eligible for parole after he completes 75 percent of his new sentence. But his original sentence has had wide-ranging effects on him, his family and the family of the man he was convicted of killing.
Jones says that when he was sentenced he had “no idea” just exactly what life in prison without parole was going to be like. But he says even after he was resentenced that he isn’t sure if he deserved a different sentence—or even a second chance.
“That’s a very difficult question for me to answer because what I did … I killed someone and that life has value,” Jones said. “Matt and his family and loved ones never get a second chance because of what I’ve done to them.”
But Jones’ sister, Jennifer Jones, says she doesn’t feel her brother should have received the sentence he originally did. She now works as a public defender and says that seeing the way her brother was originally treated in the criminal justice system impacted her decision to pursue law herself.
“I just don’t understand why it didn’t matter that he was a teenager because everybody knows that teenagers don’t make decisions the same way as adults,” she said. “Even if [juveniles] did something horrible, that doesn’t mean they are not kids anymore, and there has to be more flexibility and discretion in what we are doing to these kids.”
She says she believes that her brother has served the necessary time after more than 20 years in prison, though he has close to a decade left before he is eligible for parole.
“He’s been in prison for 22 years. He went in when he was 17 … I think he’s been punished,” she said. “It’s such a waste and it’s not fair that these innocent victims lost their lives, but it’s not fair to keep these kids in prison forever either.”
But Foley’s family doesn’t agree. They testified to state lawmakers in recent that they believe Jones should continue to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Still, Trevor Jones believes his sister has a point.
“I would just ask people to consider the evidence,” he said. “Pretty much anyone who is over [age] 25 knows that when they were 17 or 16 or 15, or younger, they’re not the same person.”
The January hearing in Bunsom’s case is sure to keep the discussion going. If the judge decides she should continue to face adult charges, and if she is subsequently convicted at trial, she would face a minimum of 40 years in prison. But if the judge decides to send her case back to juvenile court, she would face a maximum penalty of just 7 years behind bars if she is convicted.
“There’s a big disparity there and that’s difficult to wrap their heads around,” Grant said. But he told Contact7 Investigates he believes that Vong’s age could also be a factor in the case and the judge’s ultimate decision.
“The fact of the matter is 40 years from now, that 7-year-old is still going to be dead,” he said. “That 7-year-old was not going to have the opportunity to have his frontal cortex develop. That 7-year-old doesn’t care whether the killer was 16 or 60 – he’s still dead.”
Bunsom’s preliminary hearing and the reverse transfer hearing are currently set for Jan. 28, 2019.