Defense: Jensen coerced by lawmen during interviews
Defense attorneys for Heather Jensen argued Friday that a Mesa County Sheriff’s Department investigator coerced the Palisade mother into incriminating herself during interviews about the deaths of her two sons.
The hearing on a defense motion to suppress Jensen’s statements could result in key evidence being barred from the trial, depending on how District Court Judge Valerie Robison rules on the question of whether Jensen made the statements voluntarily.
According to testimony from law enforcement officials with the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department, Jensen was never told she was under arrest; never threatened with a weapon; and never placed in handcuffs or physically restrained in any way. Officers maintained a conversational tone and made no threats or promises to her during two separate interviews, Assistant District Attorney Rich Tuttle argued.
Veteran sheriff’s department investigator Jim Hebenstreit interviewed Jensen twice on Nov. 27, the night of the incident – once at St. Mary’s Hospital and a second time in a small interrogation room at the sheriff’s office.
Mesa County Sheriff’s Deputy Tim Orr also spoke to Jensen in his patrol car during a 40-minute drive from Powderhorn Mountain Resort to St. Mary’s Hospital.
Orr testified he was called to the scene near Powderhorn and found both boys lying on the ground next to the road. A volunteer firefighter was working to revive the youngest boy, William, age 2. Tyler, age 4, was alive, but unresponsive and had vomited.
Both boys were airlifted to St. Mary’s in a helicopter called to the scene by Orr.
Orr testified he took Jensen’s car keys from her, citing a potential danger of possible carbon monoxide poisoning, and offered her a ride to the hospital. During the ride, Jensen cried intermittently and repeatedly asked for information about the condition of her children, Orr told the court.
Orr said he held Jensen’s hand and tried to give her support when he escorted her to an area outside the St. Mary’s emergency room, where one of her sons was being treated and the other was dead on arrival.
Orr said he did not inform Jensen that her youngest son was already dead because he did not want her to break down in his patrol car.
Hebenstreit testified he interviewed Jensen while she smoked a cigarette outside the emergency room before she consulted with doctors and found out her son was dead.
Hebenstreit testified he never advised Jensen she had the right to remain silent and consult with an attorney because he did not believe he was investigating a crime.
“I was operating under the belief this was an accidental carbon monoxide-type of situation,” he told the court.
During the first interview, Jensen told Hebenstreit she brought the boys to Powderhorn so they could play in the snow, but did not bring jackets for them.
Jensen said she placed the children in her car with the heater running, where they stayed for a period of time while she met with a male friend who showed up unexpectedly.
Next, Hebenstreit, Orr, a social worker and two victims advocates from the sheriff’s department escorted Jensen into the hospital, where doctors took her into a family meeting room and informed her that her son, William, was dead. They then asked her to sign paperwork so her other son, Tyler, could be flown to Children’s Hospital in Denver for further treatment.
Jensen screamed, wailed and collapsed to the floor upon hearing the news. She wept uncontrollably for several minutes, both Orr and Hebenstreit testified.
After she composed herself, Jensen was asked by Hebenstreit to join him at the sheriff’s office so he could “get a little more information.” Jensen agreed and caught a ride with Orr to the station house.
Midway through the second interview, Hebenstreit began to challenge Jensen about her statements because of information he obtained from other witnesses during a break, he said.
Hebenstreit testified he told Jensen he wanted to complete the interview as soon as possible so she could leave for Denver to be with her son in Denver.
Deputy State Public Defender Elsa Archambault argued the statements Jensen made to investigators should be barred from evidence because she was physically and mentally exhausted after learning one of her sons was dead and the other gravely ill from hyperthermia, the medical term for excessive body temperature.
Escorted and repeatedly questioned by law enforcement officials — one in uniform and armed, the other wearing a weapon and a badge — and driven from the scene to the hospital to the sheriff’s office in a patrol car by a uniformed deputy, were circumstances that caused Jensen to believe she was not free to leave or decline to be interviewed, Archambault argued.
Hebenstreit’s statement that he wanted to complete the interview so Jensen could leave for Denver raised the implication that she was not free to leave the interrogation, Archambault said.
In addition to physical and emotional exhaustion, Archambault suggested Jensen was not smart enough to understand the risk she faced in agreeing to speak with the officers.
Robison refused to consider the report of a test showing Jensen has a below-average IQ score of 76, stating the psychologist who administered the test was not present to verify his credentials or validate the test procedures.
Robison said she would take the matter under advisement and issue a ruling at a later date.