| Independence Day 1997 - Lost Youth |
By Elle McKenzie
ON JULY 4th, 1997, Jordan Scott Merrell visited the home of his friend, Elisa. As she and other members of her family recall, Jordan arrived at around 8.30am and stayed until after midday.
Sometime between 11 am and noon that day, at a house three miles away from Elisa's, an elderly man suffering from Alzheimer's was robbed by three youths and, allegedly, received a blow to the back of the head, killing him. Two of the youths told the police the blow was struck by Jordan Scott Merrell. At the time he was 15 years old, and, at the time, he was somewhere else.
Right now, Jordan is incarcerated in the Oregon State Penitentiary. He has served six years of a 25 year sentence for a crime he didn't commit, which his defense counsel could have proved but failed even to argue he didn't commit, and for which he was tried as an adult and placed in an adult prison.
The backdrop to Jordan's story is one of a criminal justice system rife with racism, inequality of justice, incompetent lawyers and laws that permit Prosecutors to waive juvenile offenders into adult courts. Like the story of too many others, Jordan's is riddled with race and lack of money.
First of all, exactly what was Jordan up against? The United States has a depressing record regarding the treatment of juveniles in its justice system, in particular juveniles belonging to racial minorities.
Jordan is mixed race with white adoptive parents. His biological mother (white) requested a family be found for him before he was born, and his father (black) had left her without knowing she was pregnant. They found Carol Van Strum and her then husband, Paul Merrell. This family split up just as Jordan was approaching adolescence. The divorce was largely caused by the father's mental health problems. A once practicing attorney, he is a Vietnam veteran rated 100% for PTSD, which frequently manifested as violence towards his children, particularly Jordan. His problems have been cited by many professionals as the root of Jordan's own mental health issues.
Juveniles in the US Judicial System
The system against which Jordan is now fighting is one that has not even ratified The Convention of the Rights of the Child. Only the US and Somalia have not done so. This Convention guarantees a separate system of justice for children. Amnesty International USA says, " The USA lags behind much of the rest of the world in its treatment of children in the criminal justice system." By the criteria of most countries, and within the US itself, regarding driving, drinking, voting and having sex, Jordan was legally a child at the time of his arrest.
It is significant that in 1997, the State of Michigan passed a law that sets no minimum age for the prosecution of children as adults. What is more, they are given mandatory minimum sentences without possibility of parole. Some 49 other States followed Michigan that year like a wild stampede, although most stipulate a minimum age of 14. That same year Michigan prosecuted 11-year-old Nathaniel Abraham on the charge of second degree murder, finally sentencing him to life imprisonment in 1999, despite the fact that there was a wealth of mitigating factors in his defense.
"Only 11 years old when he was arrested in October 1997, Nathaniel is the first child to be tried under a new January 1997 Michigan law that sets no minimum age for the prosecution of juveniles as adults for serious and violent offences. Psychiatrists say the four-foot, eight-inch boy functions at the level of a six-year old. He has an IQ of 75 as well as serious emotional and learning disabilities." (Human Beams Magazine, Oct. 1999)
Yet, as his defense pointed out afterwards,
"The jury found Nathaniel guilty of second-degree murder but acquitted him on the related weapons charge of reckless abuse of a firearm. That is, he shot and killed someone without possessing a gun." (Human Beams, Oct. 1999) Like Jordan, he is an African American without money.
The statistics show that in 1997, an estimated 7,400 youth under the age of 18 were admitted to state prisons. Of these, 58% were African American. They also show that in at least six states, black youth under the age of 18 are incarcerated in adult prisons at rates of 12 to 25 times higher than those for white youth. Amnesty International says bluntly, "Prosecuting and punishing children as adults is inconsistent with international standards." There are also, currently, some 65 juveniles on death row. Executions have taken place over the last decade, most notably in Texas, despite the pleas of human rights organizations worldwide, and the personal intervention of individuals like Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Writing in the Washington Post (August 2002), Michael Bochenek, Director of Human Rights Watch Children's Division, says "the US is the only country that continues to claim legal authority to execute juvenile offenders." Fortunately, Jordan is not on death row.
This is the story of the Hurricane
Jordan has read the story of Reuben Carter and it gives him hope. Although, as his mother, Carol, told me, "he wishes he could receive gifts of food like the Hurricane did. He really hates the food." That's because Jordan grew up on a farm in Oregon and was used to homegrown fruits and vegetables. He had a good childhood, learned to play the violin, loved animals, and, as his mother recalls, "he had a special gift for taming them." He still loves music, plays the drums and writes songs. He also likes quantum physics, mathematics, literature, and girls. Of course he likes girls, and he loves talking about them with his younger brother Nikko, when he and Carol get to visit Jordan every fortnight. They can't afford more frequent visits, but they write to him every day.
Girls, and one girl in particular, are an important factor in Jordan's case, another of many factors his court-appointed defense lawyer failed to consider.
Returning to the events of July 4 1997 we find that the other two suspects arrested on charges relating to the robbery and killing were a 14-year-old girl and her boyfriend, also 14. The girl, also mixed race and adopted, was the granddaughter of the dead man. Despite the fact that the girl had a long history of violence towards her grandfather and others, and that she had just escaped from a psychiatric treatment facility, neither the police, nor the defense lawyer or his investigator, considered her as the possible killer. Why not? Because she, and her boyfriend, both told the police that Jordan did it. Jordan's mother says,
"When Jordan was arrested, he at first told police he was never in the grandfather's house, but after the police told him they had physical evidence that he was there, he said okay, he did it. The night before he was arrested, he told his older brother he was going to take the blame for something the girl had done, and apparently that's what he did."
In fact, the police had no evidence whatsoever linking Jordan to the death of the girl's grandfather. And neither the defense lawyer nor his investigator even bothered to visit, measure or photograph the crime scene at any time, a basic first procedure of any homicide case. There are so many things that the defense lawyer and his team didn't do, most importantly failing to investigate Jordan's alibi or to even use it in court, that recently hired investigator Stuart Steinberg's preliminary report on everything they missed runs to 80 pages and at least 100 hours of work. By contrast, the trial investigator's hours billed for the case only run to 27.2 hours, and he spent less than 9.5 hours reading the discovery file from the prosecution. At 332 pages, that equals 1 minute 43 seconds per page, and he made not a single note. Had they read the discovery properly, the trial lawyer and his investigator would also have discovered that Jordan had suffered mental health problems, including an attempted suicide, that he was extremely lonely and desperately looking for friends, and that, according to a psychologist's report, he 'had a need to protect women.'
Steinberg says in his report:
Records from DePaul Adolescent Treatment Center and the Lincoln County Juvenile Shelter, as well as testimony by witnesses, would establish that Jordan Merrell was the type of person who would protect a woman he considered "his woman" or "his sister." These records were never recovered and reviewed by [defense counsel] or his investigators.
There's every reason to believe that Jordan took the rap for a young girl, or her boyfriend, at her request. Jordan and the girl had enough in common for Jordan to feel she was a 'sister'. She was mixed race, had adoptive white parents, and both she and Jordan believed they lived in a community with little racial tolerance. Steinberg has found the witnesses to support this, witnesses who were there all along. Carol, his mother says, "I'm sure some of the police and the girl's father thought she had done it, but Jordan's lawyer never even considered this possibility." Despite his receiving more than 40 letters and faxes from Carol giving him all this information, and more.
The slim confession of a young, mixed-race male with some history of drug use was sufficient for the prosecution to press charges without further investigation into the information they received. Information that clearly demonstrated the enormous holes and flaws in their case. Indeed, they had a confession, and that tidied the case up nicely. Curiously and appallingly, the defense counsel apparently felt the same. Jordan also took the rap for his counsel's gross negligence. Jordan's aunt, Sue Trupin recalls meeting the defense counsel:
"He struck me immediately as a strange character. He told us from the very first time we talked with him that it was so hopeless.
He said it was because of the climate in Eugene. People were tired of juveniles being violent. And he was always talking about Measure Eleven and people wanted criminals locked up. And he was always talking about Jordan's confession and that made it hopeless, too."
A further point that Steinberg makes is that even if Jordan was guilty, there was a failure to provide him with effective representation. Jordan's right to this is a tenet of the US Constitution.
This is the central platform of a new trial for Jordan. Appeals in the past have failed because his defense counsel also failed to keep proper records on which an appeal could be based. He had not even kept notes of conversations with Jordan, nor had his investigator. All that is left is the hope of a new trial based on the extraordinary work of Stuart Steinberg and Jordan's present lawyer, Michael Rose. But there is a problem. His mother, who could not afford to pay for representation the first time round, is still in the same position. Any money she could save has been spent on the appeals, and on keeping her home and the rest of her family together, and on what she could 'save, beg and borrow to hire a good attorney, who in turn hired the best investigator in the State.'
Working in a bookstore for $8 per hour, there isn't a lot left over for legal fees. Stuart Steinberg has worked long hours for minimum payment. Jordan's mother owes him $10,000. Now, without further payment he will have to stop, and there is still work that needs to be done to ensure that the investigation is thorough and complete. He is in no doubt that Jordan will get a new trial and will receive a large settlement from the State, paid by the lawyers' professional liability fund as recompense for the defense counsel's incompetence. However, without more money to fund the investigation, the new trial is in jeopardy. Jordan's mother, understandably, is feeling the desperation and disempowerment of those who face any system riddled with inequality without the money to buy their way through it.
Jordan is 21 now, in two months he will be 22. He has lost his youth in prison. There are two ways you can help him;
- make a donation to the Trust Fund, any sum will be gratefully appreciated.
- make a loan payable to the Trust Fund. Jordan will receive a substantial settlement and his mother has said she will reimburse anyone who could help by lending a larger sum that would ensure the new trial. If you are able to make a loan, please contact Jordan's mother, Carol Van Strum at firstname.lastname@example.org
Please help him to receive the justice that he deserves by sending a donation:
Trust Account for Jordan Scott Merrell
c/o Michael Rose
Steenson, Schuman, Tewksbury & Rose
500 Yamhill Plaza Building
815 S.W. Second Avenue
Portland, Oregon 97204-3005
Phone: (503) 221-1792; fax (503) 223-1516.
Checks should be made out to Trust Account for Jordan Scott Merrell.
(If you wish to make a loan email email@example.com for details.)
If you would like to write to Jordan*, his address is:
Jordan Scott Merrell
OSP # 12549651
2605 State Street
Salem, Oregon 97310.
*Please note that they have very strict rules about mail; no staples, no stickers, no scotch tape, and the sender's name and return address must be on the top left front of the envelope or he won't get it.
Jordans Words - Collected by Daniel Dillon