Carol Chambers and the Jacob Christenson "arson" case: Let's talk

Categories: News

Mom & Jacob
Prosecutors are fickle creatures. Ask them about some case that isn't high-profile enough to make headlines, and they'll probably tell you that they can't discuss it -- and it's none of your business anyway.

But sic a few TV cameras and talk shows on them, and of course they're happy to discuss their decisions; it's their sacred duty , by gum.

That seems to be what's happened in the case of Jacob Christenson, who faces a second-degree arson charge in Douglas County for a fire set last May, when he was ten. As first reported here last Friday, Jacob and a pal were playing around with a lighter and lit a paper; it got thrown into a bush when it started to burn his friend's hand, then ignited a townhome, causing $195,000 in damages.

When I made repeated calls to the office of Eighteenth Judicial District Attorney Carol Chambers, seeking comment from someone who could justify or at least explain why the circumstances merited a charge that states the juveniles "knowingly" set the house on fire, I couldn't get a return call for days and days and...never, actually.

But now that the story has spread around a bit -- across the TV stations and the Denver Post, a pundit's column and a couple of days of talk-radio fare at KHOW -- Chambers is speaking out about the whole mess, defending the charge and expressing bafflement that Jacob and his mom,Tina, went to the press rather than simply pleading guilty and taking their medicine.

In radio interviews, Chambers has contended that the whole thing would have just ended up in a diversion program and restitution, with no hard time for Jacob -- so what's the big deal? But Tina Christenson says her son was offered the program only if he pleaded guilty; she didn't want him to be saddled with the felony plea, sealed or not (as well as crushing restitution), for the rest of his life. The case is scheduled to go to trial in juvenile court next month.

Yet this discussion has, for the most part, neatly sidestepped my original (and still unanswered) question: Why the second-degree arson charge? A misdemeanor charge, one that suggests negligence rather than an intentional felonious act, could also lead to a diversion program, if that's the goal. But Chambers's office is notorious for overcharging cases in order to pummel defendants into unfavorable plea bargains.

Her frequent filing of habitual criminal charges against low-level but chronic offenders, so that some junkie who walks away from a halfway house and gets caught shoplifting is suddenly looking at 48 years, is one result of that stance. And she's done it in the case of a ten-year-old kid because she can.

Or can she? The media spotlight on Jacob's case may have little or no bearing on its outcome. The people dialing up talk shows and weighing in on blogs to present their own views on what constitutes appropriate punishment won't determine justice for Jacob, nor should they.

But it's nice to find prosecutors having to talk about what they're doing at last.

More from our News archive: "Monica Broncucia-Jordan, Adams County coroner, begins term with firings aplenty."

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Tonya Meadows
Tonya Meadows

Alan Prendergast, Thanks for your take on this case. Its rare to see someone taking on over zealous prosecutors. Unfortunately, this is happening all over the U.S. In article after article about this case many commenters view spending time in a juvenile detention center as a minor thing. I would have held the same beliefs just a few years ago before advocating for an 8 year old boy in St. Johns, AZ who came home to find his father and another man killed and ran for help. That was my journey into learning what a juvenile detention center really is and how the children are treated in most. Get informed. Get involved. Join Children's Hope and Voice in advocating for children like Jacob. Felony charges and the court process is not in this child's best interest. Its open season on the children in the U.S. by those in places of authority. Visit


If all of the families of those that have received excessive sentences imposed by the coward Carol Chambers got together, I wonder if we could file a class-action law suit against her for the excessive trauma and suffering we must endure. In my son's case the original deal was appropriate until she found out what I did for a living. At that moment the deal was off and the sentence my son received was 10X the original. How in the hell did she get re-elected? Something to keep in mind for 2012.


Thank you, Westword, for presenting both sides of this case. (note sarcasm here). All we have heard so far, both here and on the radio, is the mother's side of the story. I have to believe that if an elected DA thinks there is adequate evidence to prosecute and have a chance of winning at trial, there is more to this story than just some sweet little kid playing with a lighter. Additionally, where is the concern for the owner of the house that got destroyed? Sure, she probably has insurance, but since when does that excuse negligence and irresponsibility on the part of anyone?

I will refrain from forming an opinion on the case until I hear, or read, both sides, but I have already formed a pretty negative opinion of Westword and the objectivity of your reporting.


"...negligence and irresponsibility..." - that's precisely the point, Buck. Chambers is charging the 10 year old according to a heightened "knowingly" standard. She should have charged pursuant to a lesser "negligence" (or, maybe, "releckness") standard commensurate with the crime. No one is trying to excuse anything or say there shouldn't be consequences and/or restitution. But what Chambers is doing (and does regularly as I know from a very analogous case that I personally witnessed) is precisely what Alan indicates - overcharging for the sole purpose of gaining unfair leverage in negotiation for plea deals. She's actively trying to put people in an impossible position that completely undercuts the whole intent of the plea bargain process. The results are simply unjust. While throwing around her power in this way is hardly illegal, it is most certainly unethical.

Whatever motivates Chambers (politics? vengeance? her own constitutional bitterness?), it is doing little to provide additional security to our communities while actively undermining the interests of justice. (Btw, it is also undermining the power of your wallet as she unnecessarily (and unjustly) pursues long prison sentences for first-time offenders who would have done just as well with a variety of more lenient consequences. The costs of keeping those people in jail are something we each bear directly.)

Thanks for writing this, Alan. You hit the nail on the head with regard to her tactics. They are a flagrant abuse of power, and the sooner she is out of office, the better this world will be.


Something I'd like to point out is that it's pretty easy to force most people to "cut a deal" when they are facing devastating charges. While I haven't been following this case heavily, it seems to me that this might be the policy that Carol Chambers is using: Threaten somebody with either a felony/years in prison and a ruined life, then offer them a chance to cut a deal where they plead guilty for massively reduced charges. Even if you're not guilty, it's a lot safer to take the plea deal rather than the small chance of having your life utterly destroyed. I've seen this same type of thing happen to college students accused of cheating.

Meanwhile, the dear DA racks up a string of guilty pleas proving (s)he is an excellent attorney who always gets his/her criminal, with a record to show it. While that isn't necessarily the case here, it certainly is one way an unscrupulous DA who doesn't actually care about justice can further his or her career.

Michael Roberts
Michael Roberts

Very interesting post, Guest. We're going to make it an upcoming Comment of the Day. Congrats, and thanks for reading.

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