Just before the murder, Colborn had escaped from a court-ordered stay at Meadowlark Manor in Bend, a treatment facility for juveniles. Peggy Kastverg, who was Meadowlark’s director at the time, told Rose’s investigator, Stuart Steinberg, that Colborn had threatened to kill a staff member. In Steinberg’s report, Kastverg described her as “a real criminal kid.”
Jordan told therapists he’d been dabbling in pot since the age of 6.
Merrell told Steinberg that he confessed partly to protect Colborn from being convicted. “[She] was younger than I was, and I perceived her as being vulnerable and in need of protection,” he said. In fact, Merrell’s half brother, Zack, who lived in Eugene at the time, says he saw Merrell shortly after the murder. Merrell told him that “Meryl was in real bad trouble” and that he’d decided he “would take the blame.” According to Van Strum, Merrell thought that even if he actually were convicted, he’d just serve some time in a juvenile facility and still be able to finish high school.
“The usual rules don’t apply with teenagers,” says Rose of juvenile confessions. “Black is white. Confessions are not confessions. There’s an element of fantasy involved, wanting to seem big. You have to take everything with a grain of salt.” The numbers back him up. In a 2005 nationwide analysis of 340 overturned convictions between 1989 and 2003, Professor Samuel R. Gross of the University of Michigan Law School found that 42 percent of exonerated individuals who had confessed to serious crimes they did not commit were under 18 years old at the time of their confession, and 69 percent of those were 15 or younger.
After the verdict on March 9, perhaps to console a mother who had just seen her child shipped off the MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility, Halpern told Van Strum that Merrell would have a strong case for “post-conviction relief.”
But since so much of the mitigating information—the alibis, Colborn’s history, the problematic confession—was not entered into evidence during the first trial, it couldn’t be used as a basis for appeal. Not until every possible review from the original trial was exhausted, that is. Somebody could get Merrell a retrial. But it wouldn’t be Halpern.
To get to Carol Van Strum’s house, you have to follow a sign to Fisher, a town that hasn’t existed in 60 years. Take a left turn over the Alsea River and drive through 10 miles of thick flora to the edge of the Siuslaw National Forest, just 30 miles from the coast. Her instructions for finding the muddy, tire-tracked path to her home require visitors to use mile markers as guidance, since there’s little to distinguish a makeshift driveway from a gravel road to Deliverance-ville. It’s about as far off the grid as one can live and still be able to check e-mail.