An 18-year-old girl who was molested by her father was sentenced today to three to eight years in prison for helping her brother kill him. The sentence ignited a burst of public outrage.
Some courtroom spectators broke into sobs as small, dark-haired Deborah Jahnke was led away unsmiling and apparently stunned to the Laramie County jail.
"This is disgusting," said Donelle Fenwick, one of several onlookers involved in a campaign to toughen laws against child abuse, as several state legislatures have done in the last two years.
Jahnke and her 16-year-old brother, Richard, who faces five to 15 years in the state penitentiary, have become the center of a national controversy since Richard killed their father with several blasts from a 12-gauge shotgun Nov. 16.
After the shooting, Deborah and Richard testified to a long history of mental, physical and sexual abuse by their father, Richard C. Jahnke, 38, a criminal investigator for the Internal Revenue Service.
Deborah Jahnke said her father sexually molested her, repeatedly beat her and her brother and forbade them to bring friends to their house. The elder Jahnke was described by neighbors as a stocky, obviously intelligent man who kept a collection of 32 guns in his house and was known for being extremely strict with his children.
Deborah Jahnke's attorney, Terry Mackey, told reporters in a broken voice that today's sentence was "disappointing." Parents convicted of killing their children often get lighter sentences, he said. He said he would attempt to arrange his client's release as quickly as possible on $25,000 bond and said appeals could take as long as a year. Her brother was freed on $50,000 bond after a letter-writing campaign and appeals to the governor.
District Judge Joseph F. Maier read a 15-page statement decrying "incomplete, incorrect, and slanted" news reports as he sentenced Deborah Jahnke today. He noted that authorities had told the defendant's brother he could seek help from them if his father continued to abuse him.
Maier also objected to reports of "incest" and "rape" by the father. He said Deborah Jahnke had told a psychiatrist "only of 'touching' or 'fondling' and of one occasion lying down upon her, while clothed, and, more importantly, that these things had happened before she was 12 years of age, and never after that."
Jurors convicted Deborah Jahnke of aiding and abetting manslaughter, after rejecting charges of aiding and abetting and conspiring to commit first degree murder. The conviction carried a sentence of from one to 20 years. Maier said he decided to impose a prison sentence, rather than put Deborah on probation or in a juvenile home, in part because "a wise and learned psychiatrist told me one time that a person who has taken a human life will feel guilt--and that some punishment is necessary for that individual to expiate that feeling of guilt...."
Last Nov. 16, Richard C. Jahnke, a victim of child abuse himself, ordered his son to leave the family home and not come back that night, and went out to dinner with his wife. The younger Richard waited for his father to return and shot him through the glass and wood garage door of their eight-room ranch-style house as the father tried to open the door. Deborah waited in the family living room with a loaded rifle at her side under a vague plan to join the shooting if her brother failed.
Richard testified at his trial that he had decided the day of the murder, "He's never going to touch us again." He said he felt that "I didn't have any place to go....There was no one out there. Not even my grandparents would have helped me."
He testified that his father beat both children viciously and on one occasion scrubbed his sister's face so hard with a washcloth that it bled. "He pushed my sister against the wall, and to discipline her, he grabbed her breasts."
He said, "I once saw him reach into my sister's pants and feel around." He said their mother blamed his sister for "wearing shorts" and stimulating the incidents. Maria Jahnke has recently told friends she was afraid of her husband. Her son said he saw his father beat his mother and call her a "slut."
Richard Jahnke said when he shot his father he blew his ROTC whistle to give himself courage. "Every shot I fired hurt me so much," he said.
After the shooting, some local citizens immediately demanded prison terms for the youths and described efforts to set them free as "lynch mob justice." Judge Paul Liamos said he sentenced Richard Jahnke to the state penitentiary to discourage other youths from "committing acts similar to yours."
During final arguments in Deborah Jahnke's case, deputy district attorney Jon Forwood asked the jury, "Are we going to put the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' in the gutter where they put that other commandment, 'Honor thy father and thy mother'?"
But when reports began to surface of long-term abuse by the elder Jahnke, public sympathy swung quickly behind the two teenagers. Citizen groups and local editorial writers were outraged when it was learned that the son had been taken to a local sheriff's office by his high school ROTC instuctor in May to complain about being beaten.
The youth told friends that he rejected offers to go to a youth center or a foster home because authorities could not guarantee similar protection for his sister and he felt he had to be in the house to protect her. A social worker who followed up the case accepted statements from the mother, who had occasionally beaten the children when they were younger, and from the son in the presence of his father that the situation had improved.
Democratic Gov. Ed Herschler has received about 1,000 letters on the case, about 95 percent of them asking him to reduce or commute Richard Jahnke's sentence. Although he has declined to announce a decision before Jahnke has exhausted his appeals, Herschler has said, "This young man has suffered great trauma through abuse, trauma both mental and physical, and perhaps that's been punishment enough." Mackey suggested today that he might also seek commutation of Deborah Jahnke's sentence.
Several criminal lawyers here have called the sentences of the Jahnke children unusually harsh in light of other recent cases. An 18-year-old Arapahoe Indian recently received three years in a juvenile home for breaking into a room where his abusive father was hiding and stabbing him to death. A 17-year-old Jacksonville, Fla., youth received 15 years probation after shooting to death his father, who had said he "needed a woman" and tried to drag away the youth's sister.