Teen murderer, now 41, denied parole in fourth appearance before board

By: - April 14, 2023 2:44 pm
The South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls, as seen on Jan. 9, 2023. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

The South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls, as seen on Jan. 9, 2023. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

SIOUX FALLS – A 41-year-old inmate who put two bullets in the head of a man who was pleading for his life in 1996 will spend at least eight more months in prison.

Paul Jensen was 14 years old at the time. He was given a mandatory sentence of life without parole for first-degree murder in the 1996 death of cab driver Michael Hare in rural Fort Pierre. 

Jensen and his co-conspirator had plotted to rob a cab driver for several days before placing the call that would end Hare’s life and put $30.48 in their pockets.

Paul Jensen, left, leaves the Minnehaha County Courthouse during his October 1996 trial for murder. (Photo courtesy Argus Leader)

He was resentenced to 200 years in 2016 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional.

On Thursday, about a dozen supporters crowded into the visit room at the Jameson Annex of the South Dakota State Penitentiary to urge the Board of Pardons and Paroles to offer a second chance to the rehabilitated man they say Jensen has become.

Among them were members of a church that backs Jensen’s release, the psychiatrist who evaluated him in 1996 and a man who runs a metalworking works company and pledged to give Jensen a job if the three other contractors who’d promised him one backed out. Also present was Jensen’s former cellmate, who drove from Denver to tell the board how remorseful his friend had been years before the Supreme Court made freedom an option.

“I’ve seen this man shed tears for how he feels about this,” said Ward Mitchell, who met Jensen in prison in 1999. “Men don’t cry in prison. We’re not allowed.”

Five other people, including two siblings of the victim, argued over video chat that the crime was too egregious to earn Jensen a second chance. They also said he’s never fully accepted responsibility for the brutal slaying, about which a former justice of the South Dakota Supreme Court wrote “a more senseless act of violence by one human being against another is hard to imagine.”

The 7-1 vote against parole for Jensen is his fourth straight failed attempt at freedom since he became parole eligible. 

Model inmate

Jensen told the board that co-defendant Shawn Springer, then 16, was like a surrogate father to him. Springer was dating Jensen’s sister, who’d spent years looking after him as their single mother worked long hours to support the family.

Jensen had “an immature sense of loyalty,” he said, and wanted to prove he could be tough and menacing enough to earn Springer’s respect.

“I wanted to be respected by someone I looked up to,” Jensen said.

Those backing his plea for freedom told the board that the aggressive “knucklehead” who’d signed on to a series of break-ins and thefts and mapped out a path to murder no longer exists.

Jensen hasn’t had a write-up for violence for 15 years, they noted, and has instead filled his time with schooling, skills training and work behind the walls.

Along the way, he not only completed a hands-on course from the Alternatives to Violence Project, but became a facilitator who taught and mentored other inmates.

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Angel Runnels, a Sioux Falls attorney who said she represents him at no cost because she’s become a friend and supporter, reminded the board that Jensen handles purchase orders and turns in contraband at Mike Durfee State Prison in Springfield. 

“Those are positions of trust,” Runnels said.

Jensen has also made and has maintained close friendships from his prison cell. 

Angie Roth said she, her husband and her three daughters have visited him multiple times over the years.

“My daughters think of him as an uncle,” Roth said. “He taught them how to shuffle cards. They like to joke around with him.”

Her church is among those ready to welcome him, she said, and her family is one of several that would be happy to take him in for a while if he were released.

Pastor Dave Sinkgraven of Life Church in Sioux Falls said his congregation is praying for Jensen’s release.

“They are praying for him, and they are praying for Mr. Hare’s family,” Sinkgraven said.

Jordan Wixon owns a metalworking company in Sioux Falls that hires subcontractors, and he said at least three of them would be ready to give Jensen a job.

“If they don’t take him, he has a job with me,” Wixon said.

‘The plan was to kill him’

Passionate calls for mercy gave way to passionate anger when Board Chair Myron Rau opened the floor for the opposition.

Former Stanley County State’s Attorney Curt Mortenson’s voice shook as he accused Jensen of falsifying the story of the killing. Jensen had talked of Springer’s need for money as a motivating factor and told the board he was confused when Springer told him to shoot Hare. He also talked about smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol before the incident began.

We believe in redemption; however, you have never, ever, not even today, accepted responsibility for what you’ve done.

– Liz Hare, sister of murder victim Michael Hare

That doesn’t square with several days of preparation and a failed “dry run” of the robbery a week earlier with another cab driver, Mortenson said. That driver had refused to meet them behind the Days Inn in Pierre.

“This was not a robbery that ended in a homicide,” said Mortenson, addressing Jensen directly as the inmate sat watching him on a laptop screen. “You and Shawn wanted to kill someone. You wanted to be gang bangers, and you wanted to know what it felt like … the plan was to kill him.”

Jensen’s supporters told the board that they believed in redemption, but that didn’t sit well with the victim’s sister, Liz Hare. 

“We believe in redemption; however, you have never, ever, not even today, accepted responsibility for what you’ve done,” she said. 

Liz Hare, Mortenson and current Stanley County State’s Attorney Thomas Maher acknowledged that the re-sentencing judge in Jensen’s case crafted a prison term designed to offer him parole, but each stated aloud or agreed with the idea that Jensen should not be considered for release until at least 2029. That’s the year Jensen’s co-conspirator, Springer, will first become eligible for release.

Asking for clemency so much earlier than Springer, Liz Hare said, amounts to a slap in the face for the family.  

“You continue to traumatize us every time you put us through this,” she said.

Maher told the board he believes in rehabilitation and self-improvement for inmates. He also argued that prison sentences are meant to accomplish more than rehabilitation. 

Other juvenile murder cases stemmed from heated moments, or were more clearly fueled by drugs or unexpected circumstances. Jensen and Springer’s crime was more methodical and brutal, Maher said, and the criminal justice system needs stiff penalties to deter such behavior.

“This sends a message that there are consequences,” he said.

Board vote: 7-1

In a brief rebuttal, Runnels said all the ugliness of the crime itself was scrutinized in exhaustive detail at Jensen’s re-sentencing hearing in 2016. The judge, she said, still crafted a sentence designed to allow the teen killer’s eventual freedom.

From left, Val McGovern, director of the South Dakota Board of Pardons and Parole, and board members Vaughn Beck and Peter Lieberman, pictured at a hearing on Feb. 16, 2023 at the Jameson Annex of the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls, SD. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
From left, Val McGovern, director of the South Dakota Board of Pardons and Paroles, and board members Vaughn Beck and Peter Lieberman are pictured at a hearing on Feb. 16, 2023, at the Jameson Annex of the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

Board Vice Chair Kirsten Aasen was the lone board member swayed by the arguments. The attorney agreed that the case is among the more chilling she’d encountered, but said she planned to vote against a motion to deny parole because Jensen had done everything the system expected him to do and more.

“I wish I had the wisdom of Solomon to decide when your debt to society is paid, but I don’t,” Aasen said. “But we have a system for parole, and I believe in that system.

Peter Lieberman, a former judge, offered similar thoughts about the crime. He and the rest of the board members at Thursday’s hearing, however, landed on a different decision. 

Jensen’s age at the time of the murder and his decades of personal growth are worthy of consideration, Lieberman said, but they weren’t enough – at least they aren’t yet.

“I am completely with the sentencing judge when he says there will be a time when he deserves parole,” Lieberman said. “But that day is not today.”

Jensen will be able to apply for parole again in eight months.




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John Hult
John Hult

John is the senior reporter for South Dakota Searchlight. He has more than 15 years experience covering criminal justice, the environment and public affairs in South Dakota, including more than a decade at the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.