PIERRE — A former Huron woman who killed her 3-year-old daughter in 1987 publicly admitted her guilt for the first time at a meeting Tuesday of the state Parole Board.
But Debra Jenner-Tyler, 46, said she has been punished enough and should be released from prison. In a hushed voice, she told of turning her life around and helping untold troubled women in prison through ministry, music and suicide prevention efforts.
ŒŒI try to make amends now, which is what's required of me,” Jenner-Tyler said. ŒŒI will always live with this.
ŒŒWhat happened was awful.”
Abby Lynn Jenner was brutally stabbed in her bed, and it was only within the last few weeks that her mother finally admitted it, said Chief Deputy Attorney General Mark Barnett.
ŒŒWe now know beyond a jury verdict that she's the person who killed her daughter,” Barnett said.
The 3-year-old was stabbed about 70 times, he said, handing over graphic photos of the little girl's bloodied body.
ŒŒShe was stabbing Abby with a steel, toy airplane and at some point went and got a kitchen knife and finished the homicide,” Barnett said, adding that the grisly details gave him nightmares.
ŒŒI did not understand the ferocity of this crime until I … looked at the pictures,” he said.
Even though Jenner-Tyler may have been a model prisoner, she misled her family and friends for 15 years into thinking someone else was the murderer, Barnett said.
ŒŒDeceit has been going on here for 15 years,” Barnett said, telling the board it is still too soon to release Jenner-Tyler. ŒŒPenitence started about three weeks ago, whenever she made that confession to the governor.”
Just before leaving office last month, former Gov. Bill Janklow, reduced Jenner-Tyler's life sentence without parole to 100 years. That made her immediately eligible for parole. Janklow said he would not cut her sentence unless she confessed to the crime.
Until then, Jenner-Tyler had steadfastly maintained her innocence, and many of her friends and family also believed she was innocent.
ŒŒIt strikes me as a great irony that someone would take advantage of a lot of trusting Christian people and take advantage of our system of justice to force all of us to suffer and re-suffer and re-suffer this crime,” Barnett said, noting that Jenner-Tyler also had several courts review her case.
ŒŒThe misery didn't stop until three or four weeks ago,” said Barnett, who was testifying on behalf of his boss, Attorney General Larry Long. Barnett said Jenner-Tyler should not be released now, and he was unsure when she should be freed.
Jenner-Tyler said she did not confess earlier because that would not have allowed her to be released. Her only hope before was to get her conviction overturned.
ŒŒThe way the system is set up, when you have life without parole you appeal and you fight,” Jenner-Tyler said.
Parole board members Cheryl Laurenze-Bogue of Dupree and Dennis Kaemingk of Mitchell, who will help decide Jenner-Tyler's fate on Friday when the entire Parole Board meets, made it clear that they were unhappy with the woman for insisting until recently that she was not guilty.
In pointed questioning, Laurenze-Bogue made Jenner-Tyler explain what happened on the night of the murder so the roomful of friends and family would know the truth.
The convicted murderer said she had been working long days and was under a lot of stress. Abby had a health problem and had not slept much for two or three days when Jenner-Tyler said she killed her.
ŒŒWhat happened was loss of emotional control,” she said. ŒŒIt's considered an act of passion, I guess.”
Supporters set up a Web site that insinuated someone else had murdered Abby, and even recently it said Jenner-Tyler was innocent, Laurenze-Bogue said. The Web site had also suggested that police and judges were corrupt.
All of that misinformation could have been avoided if Jenner-Tyler had been truthful, the parole board members said.
ŒŒYou deceived all these people,” Kaemingk said. ŒŒYou had a chance 14 years ago to confess to your supporters and everyone else, but you didn't.
ŒŒRehabilitation starts when you admit to yourself and to everyone else what you did.”
Jenner-Tyler's son, Stuart, told of the mostly long-distance relationship he's kept with his mother over the years, asking that she be freed so they can become even closer.
ŒŒShe's been the best mother that she could possibly be to me … in the circumstances that we have,” said Stuart Jenner, 20.
ŒŒWe just made the best of the situation that we had,” he said as his mother wept quietly in a nearby chair.
The woman's son had been living in Kansas but moved to Pierre as a high school junior to be close to his mother and her parents, who live in the capital city.
Jenner-Tyler said, if paroled, she would live with her parents and work at a Fort Pierre motel. She said she would agree to the toughest of parole conditions and hoped to finish her ministry studies.
ŒŒIt's not about what was but what is and what will be,” she said.
Jenner-Tyler's mother and father, Janet and Bruce Shafer, said they are retired and would welcome their only child.
ŒŒWe plan to do everything we can in order to make it work,” Bruce Shafer said at the hearing in the women's prison.
ŒŒWe would really like to have her back as part of our family,” added Janet Shafer.
Several friends pleaded for the woman's freedom, telling Parole Board members that she has been an exemplary inmate who has given her life to the Lord and has helped many women behind bars. She can continue to do good on the outside, they said.
ŒŒI can't imagine how she could be a threat in any way to society,” said Ruth Bakken of Rochester, Minn., who has been Jenner-Tyler's friend since grade school. ŒŒSomehow prison has not changed her.”
Bakken, who maintained a Jenner-Tyler Web site with her husband, Kirby, and others, said 10 1/2 years is the average prison term for murder in the United States. She said second-degree murder does not normally bring life without parole.
ŒŒShe's been in here long enough, and it's time to move on,” Ruth Bakken said, adding that her friend has no criminal tendencies.
However, Laurenze-Bogue reminded Bakken that Jenner-Tyler is in prison for homicide.
ŒŒWe are talking about the murder of a child,” the Parole Board member said.
Jenner-Tyler was sentenced under South Dakota law, and laws from other states and the federal justice system do not apply in her case, Laurenze-Bogue said.
ŒŒLife is cheap in some states,” Barnett said. ŒŒThat doesn't mean that we ought to follow suit.”
Nance Orsbon, a volunteer chaplain at the women's prison, said she has known Jenner-Tyler for five years, and she has been selfless in helping others. Few, if any, prisoners would measure up to her standards, Orsbon said.
ŒŒShe gives herself to others entirely,” Orsbon said, adding that she would leave her grandchildren without fear in Jenner-Tyler's care.
Jenner-Tyler said freedom now would allow her to be a mother to her son, Stuart, who has suffered with her all these years.
ŒŒAs long as I'm still in prison, he's still in prison. He wants to be by my side,” she said. ŒŒThe greatest act of redemption for Abby's life would be to allow me to be Stuart's mother.”
Terry Pechota, Jenner-Tyler's lawyer, told the board Tuesday that she was probably suffering from postpartum depression when she killed her daughter. The child's lack of sleep and fussiness were too much for his client, Pechota said.
ŒŒThe overwhelming emotional and psychological pressures that had been building up just took over, and I seriously believe that she did not have any intent but things simply got out of control that night and Abby's life was taken.”
If that was the case, Jenner-Tyler may have been better off pleading guilty but mentally ill, Laurenze-Bogue said.
Although the Parole Board will make its decision Friday, Jenner-Tyler will not be informed until late Monday because that is standard practice for the board.