Illustration by Mike McQuade for HuffPost
In the spring of 1998, Kipland Kinkel, then 15, shot and killed his mother, his father and two students at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon. He wounded 25 others. At the time, the country was only beginning to fear that mass shootings at schools might actually become a trend.
A shooting at a Mississippi high school the previous October was followed by a cluster of killings across the country perpetrated by students who seemed to select victims at random. After the third in eight months, at a middle school near Jonesboro, Arkansas, President Bill Clinton asked Attorney General Janet Reno to take action. “We do not understand what drives children, whether in small towns or big cities, to pick up guns and take the lives of others,” Clinton said. Two months later, Kinkel’s crime marked the highest-casualty school shootings by a student in three decades. Less than a year after that, the tragedy at Columbine happened, followed by the horrifying string of school shootings that have become a routine of American life since.
Kinkel was sentenced to nearly 112 years without the possibility of parole, which to many in the community felt like the closest thing to closure. A parent of one of the students Kinkel killed said at his sentencing she had “no idea how long it will take before we can lead a normal life without all the constant reminders” of her son’s death. The media rushed to piece together a narrative about him. Friends and acquaintances described a boy with an all-American upbringing but who was obsessed with bombs and guns, dressed in black and listened to Marilyn Manson.
That image of Kinkel has remained frozen in time: the dangerous child people point to as the reason some kids need to be locked up for life. For decades, Kinkel never tried to correct it. He refused every interview request and even avoided being photographed in group activities inside the prison. He worried that reemerging publicly would only further traumatize his victims. But last year he agreed to speak to HuffPost.
Kinkel is one of about 10,000 people nationwide serving life or life-equivalent sentences for crimes they committed before they turned 18, when their brains were not yet fully developed. The U.S. is the only country that allows juveniles to be sentenced to life without parole. The children condemned to die in prison are disproportionately Black and brown, the result of years of racist fearmongering about so-called “super-predator” youth. But in Oregon, which is overwhelmingly white and has had a high rate of juvenile incarceration, Kinkel is one of the most infamous prisoners.
In recent years, Oregon has undergone intense debates about whether it’s appropriate to lock up juveniles for life. Senate Bill 1008, a juvenile justice reform bill that dramatically changed the way Oregon punished people who committed crimes before they were 18 years old, was introduced in the state legislature in 2019. It eliminated sentences of life without parole for minors, made it harder to prosecute kids as adults and created early-release opportunities for those who demonstrated rehabilitation.
Prosecutors and conservative media personalities inaccurately claimed that S.B. 1008 would automatically allow Kinkel to go free. He was the subject of television commercials and testimony in the state Capitol urging lawmakers to vote against the bill. The legislation narrowly passed, but weeks later politicians clawed back a key part of the reform effort. In response to concerns about Kinkel, the state legislature passed another bill amending S.B. 1008 to specifically exclude people who were sentenced before its passage. That move makes it more likely Kinkel will spend the rest of his life behind bars, but it also affects hundreds of other people in Oregon who are in prison for crimes they committed as kids — including people who have played a role in Kinkel’s rehabilitation.
I have spoken with Kinkel over the phone for about 20 hours over the course of nearly ten months. It was a rare opportunity to hear from the perpetrator of a school shooting; those that survive almost never speak publicly again. No questions were off-limits. He described to me the childhood onset of hallucinations and delusions that would later be identified as symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. He walked me through the events that drove him to amass weapons and his memory of the psychotic break he experienced during his crime. He described his intense guilt for what he had done. He told me about the treatment and support he received from his doctors, therapists, sister, volunteers and his community of juvenile lifers.
"I have responsibility for the harm that I caused when I was 15. But I also have responsibility for the harm that I am causing now as I’m 38 because of what I did at 15."
Today, Kinkel is unrecognizable from the 15-year-old boy who inflicted devastating harm on his community. Within the confines of the prison system, where he has now spent most of his life, Kinkel has earned his college degree, become a certified yoga instructor and advocated for criminal justice reform before elected officials. He is diligent about his mental health treatment and says he rarely hears the voices anymore. When they do emerge, they are quiet and garbled. Even when he can make out what they are saying, he understands them as manifestations of his illness; they don’t hold a powerful influence over him anymore.
I found Kinkel to be a remarkably reliable narrator of his life. When listening back to recordings of phone calls months apart, he remained consistent on even the smallest details, and his version of events was supported by doctors and people who lived with him in the prison. Our conversations took place throughout the height of the coronavirus pandemic, and sometimes we’d go weeks without talking when his unit went into lockdown after a COVID-19 outbreak. In September, he and others incarcerated in his prison were evacuated to a nearby prison due to historically destructive wildfires.
Kinkel is still worried about hurting his victims by speaking publicly, but as he watched people use him as the reason to exclude some of his closest friends from getting a second chance, he began to feel as if his silence was causing harm, too.
We spoke for the first time last summer, about a year after the legislative roller coaster. “I’ve never done this. I’ve never done an interview,” Kinkel told me. “Partly because I feel tremendous, tremendous shame and guilt for what I did. And there’s an element of society that glorifies violence, and I hate the violence that I’m guilty of. I’ve never wanted to do anything that’s going to bring more attention.”
“I have responsibility for the harm that I caused when I was 15. But I also have responsibility for the harm that I am causing now as I’m 38 because of what I did at 15,” he said.
Kinkel heard voices in his head for the first time when he was 12 years old. He recalled getting off the school bus, walking up his driveway and hearing a male voice say, “You need to kill everyone, everyone in the world.”
Kinkel turned around, looking for someone behind him. But no one was there. He ran inside his house, but the voice followed him in, accompanied by a second. Frightened, he retrieved the rifle he had been given for his 12th birthday and held it tight, hoping it would protect him from the invisible intruders. He lay in bed, waiting for the voices to go away.
The two voices soon became three, all of them male. They had a hierarchy, and Kinkel could tell them apart. They sometimes argued with one another, and they often worked together to denigrate and manipulate Kinkel. They spoke about him as if he couldn’t hear them. Everything they said was ugly, negative and violent.
The voices terrified Kinkel. They warned him that everyone would think he was a freak if he tried to tell anyone about them. So Kinkel tried to make sense of what he was experiencing on his own. He didn’t grow up particularly religious, but he wondered if they came from God. Or maybe the devil.
Eventually, he settled on an explanation: “I believed that the Disney corporation was working in conjunction with the U.S. government, and they had planted a chip in my head and so the voices were coming from this chip,” Kinkel said during an interview.
Over time, he became fixated on the idea that the Chinese were going to invade the West Coast. “And I became obsessed with obtaining weapons. Not just guns, but knives and explosives.”
Kinkel’s interest in weapons didn’t seem entirely abnormal in his rural Walterville, Oregon. His parents weren’t gun enthusiasts, but he got rides to gun shows from a friend’s parents. Since he wasn’t old enough to buy firearms, he bought books or magazines filled with warnings about foreign invaders and government plans to seize Americans’ guns. The anti-government paranoia resonated deeply with him.
The news was buzzing with events that seemed to Kinkel like validation of his fears: the deadly sieges at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and near Waco, Texas, followed by the 1994 federal assault weapon ban. “The narrative was, ‘They’re gonna take our guns.’ And my fear, twisted into my illness, was, ‘Our own government is going to take away our guns before the Chinese invade, and we’re not going to be able to defend ourselves,’” Kinkel said.
The voices would come and go. “I wasn’t consumed with the symptoms of this illness all the time. I would kind of oscillate back and forth to being a fairly normal kid,” Kinkel said. He noticed the voices often appeared when he had a bad day, so he resolved to have only good days.
“That now, to me, sounds absurd because, of course, life is always filled with stress,” Kinkel said. “But as a kid, I really felt like, ‘OK, I have this figured out. I have this solution .… If I stop having bad days and I just am OK, then I won’t have to deal with this anymore.’”
But on the inevitable bad days, Kinkel was consumed by delusions. It was an isolating experience, and he slid into depression. His parents could tell something was wrong, but they didn’t know what. His dad, Bill, was skeptical of mental health professionals — he viewed them as quacks who existed to drive up the cost of insurance premiums.
When Kinkel was in eighth grade, he and a friend got in trouble with the cops for throwing rocks off a freeway overpass. His parents searched his room afterward and found materials that could be used to make a bomb. His mom, Faith, was at a loss. She insisted on taking Kinkel to a child psychologist.
Faith told the psychologist, Jeffrey Hicks, that Kinkel had been getting in trouble and that he and his friends had an unhealthy fascination with weapons and explosives. According to Hicks’s notes, Kinkel showed “no evidence of delusional thinking or other thought disorder symptoms.” That was intentional on Kinkel’s part. He was determined not to let anyone find out about the voices, fearing he would be diagnosed as “retarded.”
Childhood-onset schizophrenia is extremely rare and difficult to diagnose. It can be hard to differentiate between imaginative play and signs of mental illness, and hallucinations can occur in healthy children as part of regular development. It’s also not uncommon for people with schizophrenia to be secretive about hearing voices. Some of the more visible symptoms related to mood and behavior can be mistaken for other, more common mental illnesses, such as depression or bipolar disorder.
During his nine therapy sessions in 1997, Kinkel did his best to hide symptoms of mental illness — but sometimes he slipped up. During one appointment, he admitted to often feeling bored, irritable and tired. He described eating as “a chore” and said there was nothing he looked forward to, according to Hicks’s notes. “He is easily frustrated, negative in his outlook and it doesn’t take much stress to overwhelm him,” the psychologist wrote. Hicks concluded Kinkel showed symptoms of depression and recommended his parents talk to his doctor about prescribing an antidepressant.
“I remember freaking out,” Kinkel said. “I had this plan — and this is a mess — but I had this plan to get into the military because if I got in the military, then I could get into the CIA, and if I got in the CIA, then I could get the right connects to find whoever in the government that put this chip in my brain.”
“And being diagnosed as depressed — this was something the voices pushed — meant that I would not be allowed into the military. And I would not be allowed to own guns.”
Unable to explain this predicament, Kinkel took Prozac for three months until the prescription ran out. By then he had been staying out of trouble and was no longer in therapy. He figured the antidepressant was like an antibiotic that only needed to be taken for a limited period of time.
Hicks identified Kinkel’s relationship with his dad as an area to work on. According to Kinkel, when Hicks learned that he and Bill sometimes went target shooting together, he encouraged them to do it more often. For Kinkel, this presented an opportunity to talk his parents into buying him the handgun he had long wanted. His mom was hesitant but eager to see her son bond with his dad. In June 1997, Bill agreed to buy Kinkel a 9mm Glock, a gun Kinkel chose and paid for with his own money.
Hicks later said in court he had no involvement in the decision, and his contemporaneous notes do not mention target shooting or the gun. Reached by phone earlier this year, he said he had no recollection of encouraging Kinkel and his father to practice shooting guns together.
Having the gun made Kinkel feel secure, but the relief was short-lived. The weekend of Thanksgiving 1997, Kinkel rode his bike five miles to the nearest gas station to get a snack — something sugary his parents wouldn’t have kept in the house. On his way home, he rode by a warning triangle sign. He kicked the reflective sign, breaking it, and continued on his way. When he came around the bend, he noticed a grungy-looking man standing near a trailer, staring him down.
Moments later, the man drove up in a brown truck covered in bullet holes, got out and confronted Kinkel about damaging the sign. At first Kinkel denied it. Then, as Kinkel remembers it, the man pulled out a gun. Kinkel apologized frantically, but the man insisted Kinkel give him $40 to make things right. Kinkel had spent his cash on candy and soda, so the man demanded Kinkel’s phone number. Kinkel gave him a fake one and the man left.
"It was no longer, ‘I need to get this gun to protect myself from these very specific threats.’ It was, ‘Everything was a threat, everything was evil, everything was ugly.'"
The “triangle incident,” as Kinkel now refers to it, sent him into a paranoid spiral. He was still several miles from home, and the ride back was mostly uphill on a rural road with few cars. He worried the man would call the number, realize it was fake and come back for him. As he raced up the hill, he mentally prepared to ditch his bike and run into the woods.
“This is all your fault,” the voices told Kinkel.
“You lied to him.”
“You’re an idiot.”
“He’s coming to kill you.”
It was no longer just abstract, distant entities like the government or Disney or China that were after him — the threat was right in his neighborhood. He stopped making candy runs to the gas station. He slept with his loaded Glock under his pillow, convinced the man could show up any time to kill him and his parents. When Kinkel’s dad realized his son was sleeping with a loaded gun, he removed it from the bedroom. Kinkel started sleeping with a rifle he still had access to, this time being more careful to avoid getting caught.
With time, the intensity of Kinkel’s paranoia faded and the voices relented. He had weeks when things like getting his driver’s permit, playing football, pursuing girls and getting through school occupied most of his attention. But the sense of normality was fleeting.
In the spring of 1998, Kinkel and his mom stopped at the gas station near his house. A car pulled up with two men inside. Kinkel didn’t recognize either of them, but they knew him. They confronted him about breaking the triangle and said they were still waiting on the $40.
Today, Kinkel’s best guess is that the men had younger siblings at his school who heard him talking about the confrontation over the triangle. But he also recognizes this period of his childhood as one when he was “dipping in and out of psychosis.” He can’t say with certainty whether the triangle incident happened exactly as he remembers it.
It’s possible, Kinkel now says, that “I had this incident, I had this confrontation — but the paranoid features of my illness built it up to be much more of a threat than it actually was.”
But to 15-year-old Kinkel, the threat was real and immediate. He was experiencing symptoms of untreated schizophrenia, and there were signs of his unraveling mental health. He turned in Spanish homework with a violent, nonsensical note in the margin. During class one day, the voices became so overpowering Kinkel blurted out, “God damn this voice inside my head.” It was a modification of the Nine Inch Nails lyric he felt a connection to: “Goddamn this noise inside my head.” He was disciplined for swearing in class but was not questioned about the voices.
‘You Have To Kill Him’
After the incident at the gas station, Kinkel became fixated on getting a handgun that his parents didn’t know about. A friend at school agreed to steal a gun from another student’s father and sell it to Kinkel. On May 19, 1998, two days before the shooting at Thurston High, the friend called Kinkel and told him to bring $110 to school the next day to buy the gun.
“I felt incredible relief,” Kinkel said. “The feeling that I had was, ‘OK. I am going to be safe … I’m going to have it on me, and what this thing will do for me is it will protect me from these threats.’”
But almost immediately after they completed the transaction, Kinkel and his friend were caught by a detective who was investigating the missing gun. Kinkel was arrested and charged with possession of a firearm in a public building and receiving a stolen weapon.
The gun was gone, and Kinkel was facing expulsion and a felony criminal record. “My whole world blew up at that point,” he said. “All the feelings of safety and security — of being able to take control over a threat — disappeared.”
Bill picked Kinkel up from the police station, and they stopped at Burger King on the way home. Bill was so upset with his son that he took his food to the car to eat alone. The guilt and shame led to the voices emerging more powerfully than Kinkel had ever experienced. They told him that all of humanity was evil — that he, too, was evil. Concepts like love and care and compassion were lies, they said.
“It was no longer, ‘I need to get this gun to protect myself from these very specific threats.’ It was, ‘Everything was a threat, everything was evil, everything was ugly,’” Kinkel said. “I got to the point where there was a mantra that the voices were saying — but also that I was experiencing — which was that I had to commit the crimes that I committed. The sense that I had no other choice was overwhelming. It became my reality.”
“It’s hard for me to be able to say that because, so clearly, I had so many other choices,” Kinkel said. “But in that time — that’s the horror of becoming fixated in a psychotic way — I felt like I didn’t want to do what I was going to do, I had to do it. That’s what was going on in my head.”
Kinkel was too distraught to eat, but he didn’t want to get in more trouble for throwing away his burger and wasting money. So he waited in the bathroom until enough time had passed that his dad would believe he had finished his food. During the 15-minute car ride home, the voices overwhelmed him.
Most people with schizophrenia do not commit acts of violence — in fact, people with severe mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators. But Kinkel’s voices demanded he commit terrible violence at an incredibly vulnerable time in his young life.
“Look what you’ve done, you stupid piece of shit. You’re worthless,” one said.
“You have to kill him, shoot him,” another said, echoed by the third.
Kinkel wanted to kill himself, but the voices told him he couldn’t yet. “I know it’s really hard for people to accept and understand, but there was something very clear inside me — like suicide wasn’t an option for me until I had done this thing that they were telling me to do. And they had promised me that once I did this thing I could kill myself.”
The voices kept getting louder and louder. When they got home, Kinkel went to his room, crying. He took two guns from his room and hid them in the attic, in case his dad went looking for them.
“Get your gun, shoot him, shoot him.”
That afternoon, he picked up the rifle, walked down the stairs and saw his dad sitting at the bar.
“Kill him, shoot him. You have no choice.”
The voices had never told him he didn’t have a choice before.
Kinkel shot his dad in the back of the head, dragged the body into the bathroom and covered it with a sheet.
“Look at what you’ve done now, you stupid shit.”
As Kinkel waited for his mom to come home, he fielded several phone calls, asking how he was doing and where his dad was. He lied each time. When Faith got home that evening, Kinkel met her in the garage.
“Kill her. Look at what you’ve done. You have no other choice.”
He told his mom he loved her, shot her twice in the back of the head, three times in the face and once in the heart. He covered her body with a sheet, too.
He stayed up all night, arguing with the voices.
“Get guns and bullets. You have no other choice. Kill everybody. Go to school and kill everybody. Look at what you’ve already done.”
At one point during the night, Kinkel held a gun up to his head, but he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. The next morning, he left for school in his mom’s SUV. He brought three guns, including the Glock his dad bought him in an effort to improve their relationship. He wore a long trench coat to help conceal his weapons. He taped a hunting knife to his leg and two spare bullets to his chest — he wanted to make sure to save ammunition to kill himself.
As he entered the school, he saw three boys walking in front of him. Retelling the events of that day over the phone years later, Kinkel recalled, “There was quite literally a struggle inside myself because I was being told to …” Then the line fell silent. “Shoot these boys.”
But he didn’t.
He recognized one of the boys, told him to stay away and headed toward the cafeteria. On the way, he pulled a rifle out of his coat and shot 16-year-old Ben Walker in the head. He continued walking and shot another boy, Ryan Atteberry, in the side of the face. He entered the cafeteria and emptied what was left of the 50-round clip. As he paused to reach for the Glock, one of the students he had shot knocked him to the ground. Kinkel fired a single shot from the pistol before he was disarmed by several students.
Kinkel killed two boys — Walker and 17-year-old Mikael Nickolauson — and injured 25 other students. He was not targeting any of his victims, he later said. They were just the ones who were there.
As he lay on the ground, restrained by his classmates, all he could think about was how much he wanted to die. The voices had told him he could if he just did what they said.
“You lied to me again,” he thought.
Kinkel was arrested and taken to the police station to give a recorded confession. There was no lawyer present, but Kinkel wasn’t thinking about his legal rights or his potential punishment. He just wanted to die. When Detective Al Warthen stepped out of the interview room to set up the camera equipment, Kinkel managed to step through his cuffed hands and grab the knife that was still taped to his leg. “Just kill me, just shoot me!” he yelled at Warthen.
As Kinkel lunged forward with the knife, Warthen headed to the door and, with help from another officer, locked Kinkel inside the room. When they reopened the door, Warthen shot a burst of pepper spray into the room, and Kinkel dropped the knife onto the table.
Throughout the interview, Warthen tried to identify a motive for the killings. Were his parents abusive? Did he have it out for any of his classmates?
“No,” Kinkel gasped through heaving sobs.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me. My head just doesn’t work right,” he tried to explain.
“My parents were good people. I’m just so fucked up in the head, I don’t know why.”
“God damn these voices inside my head!” he wailed. “I had no other choice.”
God damn these voices inside my head!
After Kinkel’s confession, detectives from the Lane County Sheriff’s Office went to his house, where they found the bodies of his parents. Opera music from the soundtrack of the Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes movie, “Romeo + Juliet,” played on repeat. Police searched the home and found several explosive devices hidden in the crawl space — weapons Kinkel had built at the height of delusional belief that the Chinese military would soon roll through his town in tanks. When the threat of invasion began to feel less immediate, Kinkel had stashed the explosives in a place he figured his parents were unlikely to find them.
Kinkel’s picture appeared on the front page of The New York Times the next morning. Clinton traveled to Springfield and met with the families of the victims. The major television networks scrambled for exclusive interviews with people who knew Kinkel and could offer the public something to try to make sense of the tragedy.
“Who is to blame? That is the question everyone is trying to answer in the wake of yesterday’s school shootings in Springfield, Oregon,” said ABC News’ Barbara Walters. “For the fourth time this school year, a student has opened fire on his classmates, shattering lives, shaking a community and the country. What turned this teenager against his friends and, apparently, his own parents? What is going on with America’s children? Tonight, we look for clues.”
Kinkel spent the next 18 months in solitary confinement awaiting trial, first in a juvenile detention center and then, after his 16th birthday, in adult county jail. He was left to deal with his overwhelming sense of guilt, loss and self-loathing mostly in isolation. Solitary confinement is widely recognized as a form of torture, and for Kinkel, it made the symptoms of his illness all-consuming.
When one of his teeth started protruding outward, the result of not having his retainer in jail, Kinkel believed his crooked tooth was being used as an antennae for the chip in his brain. When he found out he was going to have an MRI, he was relieved that everyone would finally see the chip and realize the government and Disney were to blame. At times he could no longer tell where his body ended and the walls of the prison began.
During this time, two boys killed 13 people at Columbine High School in Colorado before killing themselves. Kinkel sobbed when he found out, thinking he might be personally responsible for inspiring the massacre. The voices told him that it was his fault and that he should hang himself. He spent that night punching himself in the head, trying to force the voices out.
Kinkel was examined by multiple doctors who concluded his symptoms were consistent with paranoid schizophrenia, although some said a final diagnosis should wait until he was older.
Kinkel underwent endless evaluations, but he wasn’t receiving meaningful mental health treatment. He was put on medication but taken off of it for weeks at a time ahead of evaluations with doctors who would later be called on to testify about Kinkel’s mental state.
“It’s a testament to how people were thinking about mental health,” Kinkel said. “If I had a broken leg or diabetes, they weren’t going to not treat my broken leg. They weren’t going to not give me insulin. But my lawyers, who were supposed to have my best interests at heart, thought, ‘As a legal strategy, the best thing we can do is make him as psychotic as possible.’”
A few years before Kinkel’s crime, voters in Oregon passed Measure 11, a tough-on-crime citizens’ initiative that established mandatory minimum sentences for certain offenses. The measure also required kids ages 15 to 17 who were charged with these crimes to be tried as adults. The passage of Measure 11 took away a judge’s ability to consider mitigating factors before sending a minor to adult court — such as past trauma or developmental immaturity. This gave prosecutors tremendous leverage in convincing kids to take plea deals that still carried lengthy sentences.
Under the mandatory minimums, Kinkel faced a sentence of several hundred years in prison if convicted. Prosecutors offered a plea deal that carried a sentence of between 25 and 220 years — depending on whether the judge decided to apply the 7½-year sentences for each of the 26 attempted murder charges concurrently or consecutively.
There was also intense pressure from people in the community for Kinkel to agree to a quick resolution to the case instead of moving forward with Oregon’s “guilty except for insanity” defense. He was in no position to make an informed decision about his legal options. Going off his medication for several weeks had caused the voices to return. He had not yet accepted his diagnosis and was terrified of being “retarded,” as he put it at the time. Being sent to a mental institution didn’t seem much better than prison. And he was desperate to avoid the courtroom. For years, he had tried to manage the voices by limiting his exposure to high-stress situations — avoiding “bad days.” Even the stress of brief appearances in court prompted the voices to gang up on him. He feared a long, drawn-out trial would be unbearable.
Days before his trial was expected to begin, Kinkel was found curled up in a ball, struggling to breathe after experiencing a panic attack and hearing voices. He signed the agreement to plead guilty a few days later, before he’d had the chance to read most of the document.
During the plea hearing, Kinkel responded to the court’s questions in one-word affirmative answers. Asked to confirm the statement “My mind is clear, and I am not sick. I am not under the influence of alcohol or drugs that would affect my ability to understand the contents of this Plea Petition or proceedings associated with this petition,” Mark Sabitt, Kinkel’s lawyer, jumped in.
Sabitt stated that Kinkel had recently taken an antipsychotic medication and a tranquilizer but assured the court that neither affected his ability to understand the court proceedings. The lawyer made no mention of the recent interruption in Kinkel’s medication or his recent auditory hallucinations.
Thaddeus Betz, one of Kinkel’s current lawyers, said in an interview that he thinks Kinkel’s trial team believed a guilty plea was his best shot at avoiding a life sentence. They were likely “concerned, just by the nature of the offense, that even if it was such a good case of guilty except insanity, that a jury just wouldn’t stomach it. It’s the most notorious case Lane County had ever had.”
Sabitt declined to comment.
At the sentencing hearing, Sabitt urged Judge Jack Mattison to consider Kinkel’s young age and untreated mental illness at the time of the crimes in his decision. “I would submit to you that in a civilized society, we don’t lock away our 15-year-old offenders without hope. Children are and should be judged by different standards from those imposed upon adults,” Sabitt said. “To say that a 15-year-old offender should spend 200 years in prison is draconian. Although it seems to be authorized by our statutes, it’s unconstitutionally cruel and unusual as applied in this case.”
But Lane County Assistant District Attorney Kent Mortimore was adamant that Kinkel should die in prison. “Kip Kinkel ranks with some of the most notorious criminals in our history, names like Ted Bundy, Timothy McVeigh, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy,” Mortimore said. The point of the plea deal wasn’t to show mercy, Mortimore said, the goal was to send Kinkel to prison for life, without subjecting the community to the trauma of a lengthy trial.
The prosecutor cast Kinkel as a manipulative, calculating killer who fabricated symptoms of mental illness to justify carefully planned acts of violence. He pointed to Kinkel not pursuing an insanity defense as evidence that claims of mental illness were a ruse. “There’s no corroboration that he heard voices. All we have is his word,” Mortimore claimed.
Multiple medical experts who examined Kinkel rejected the idea that he was lying about his symptoms. Kinkel’s descriptions of his symptoms “conform precisely to the literature and to our research on schizophrenics and psychotic people,” Orin Bolstad, a clinical psychologist, testified. “He doesn’t do the kinds of things that people do when they’re trying to fake symptoms.”
Psychiatrist William Sack testified that when he showed his interview notes to Kinkel, the teen made corrections that were unfavorable to him, noting that he had been drunk and shoplifted more times than Sack had documented. “I think he was trying to be almost too scrupulously honest in giving me this information,” Sack testified.
Kinkel’s crimes “were directly the product of a psychotic process that had been building intermittently in him over a three-year period,” Sack said. He predicted that with medication and consistent psychiatric care, Kinkel could safely return to the community in 25 or 30 years. “I would be happy to have him as my next-door neighbor if those conditions were met.”
For hours, dozens of survivors and their family members gave statements about the physical and emotional pain Kinkel had caused. They described their surgeries, experimental drugs, infections and permanent nerve damage. Worrying they would die, only to feel guilty when they survived. Their constant fear, depression and anxiety. Strained relationships, plummeting grades and an inability to return to normal. Some expressed doubt about Kinkel’s mental illness. Even if medicine could help Kinkel, how could they trust him to take it?
Many of them asked the judge to lock Kinkel away for life. “Kip has taken Mikael’s life permanently. He has taken a lot of joy from our family permanently. And I feel he should be in jail permanently,” Mikael Nickolauson’s father said.
“If your closest family and friends could not tell that you were capable of murder, and you even surprised yourself, how can we believe you when you say you won’t do it again?” Ben Walker’s mother asked.
Betina Lynn, who was shot in the back and the foot, told Kinkel she remembered seeing him in Spanish class and thinking he seemed nice. She wished they could have been friends, she said.
Another survivor of the shooting, Jennifer Alldredge, told Kinkel she hated him. “No one can hug you and tell you everything will be OK, because it won’t,” she said. “It won’t ever be OK until Mike and Ben can walk and talk with their families again. It won’t ever be OK until my friends’ surgeries are done and the scars are miraculously erased. It won’t ever be OK again until every memory, every fear and every consequence becomes nonexistent.”
Kinkel’s sister, Kristin, who was away at college when he killed their parents, was the only family member of a victim who defended him in court. She told the judge that her brother was compassionate and full of potential. “Only with hindsight do I truly see the signs of someone who was in desperate need of help, different help than any of us knew how to give.”
Kristin told the judge that she had encouraged Kinkel to go to a “safe place in his memory” and try to tune out the victims’ anger. He had stopped her and said, “No, I owe it to them to listen.”
She predicted psychological and medical advancement in the years ahead that would help her brother. “He will need support, love, medical help, et cetera. But most of all right now, he needs hope.”
Kinkel was the last to speak.
“I have spent days trying to figure out what I want to say. I have crumpled up dozens of pieces of paper and disregarded even more ideas. I have thought about what I could say that might make people feel just a little bit better. But I have come to the realization that it really doesn’t matter what I say. Because there is nothing I can do to take away any of the pain and destruction I have caused. I absolutely loved my parents and had no reason to kill them. I had no reason to dislike, kill or try to kill anyone at Thurston. I am truly sorry that this has happened. I have gone back in my mind hundreds of times and changed one detail, one small event so this never would have happened. I wish I could. I take full responsibility for my actions. These events have pulled me down into a state of deterioration and self-loathing that I didn’t know existed. I am very sorry for everything I have done, and for what I have become.”
When Oregon adopted its state constitution in 1859, the document stated that punishment for crime “shall be founded on the principles of reformation, and not of vindictive justice,” Mattison noted in the opening of his ruling. But by the time Kinkel entered the courtroom, reform was no longer the main priority. In 1996, Oregon voters amended the state’s constitution to read, “Laws for the punishment of crimes shall be founded on these principles: the protection of society, personal responsibility, accountability for one’s actions and reformation.”
“To me, this was a clear statement that the protection of society in general was to be of more importance than the possible reformation or rehabilitation of any individual defendant,” Mattison said. The judge acknowledged that medical experts did not expect Kinkel to be dangerous if provided long-term treatment — but said it’s impossible to be sure. If Kinkel succeeded in being a model prisoner, Mattison said, he could seek early release through clemency or commutation — a longshot pathway to freedom for even the most deserving of the incarcerated.
Ultimately, Mattison concluded, Kinkel needed “to know there was a price to be paid for each person hit by his bullets.” The judge sentenced him to 111 years and eight months in prison, without the possibility of parole. Kinkel had forfeited his right to a trial and was still condemned to die in prison.
Kinkel was sent to MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility, a prison for male youth ages 12 to 24, to serve the beginning of his sentence. There he joined a growing number of kids nationwide facing life sentences, or the equivalent of life.
For much of the previous century, there had been a push for minors who committed crimes to be treated differently than adults. In 1909, Julian Mack, one of Chicago’s first juvenile court judges, described how he viewed his job: “The problem for determination by the judge is not, Has this boy or girl committed a specific wrong, but What is he, how has he become what he is, and what had best be done in his interest and in the interest of the state to save him from a downward career.” These rehabilitative efforts were reserved for white children, as Kristin Henning, the head of Georgetown University’s Juvenile Justice Clinic, documents in her forthcoming book, “The Rage of Innocence.” Black kids were treated as a “lost cause.”
When violent crime spiked in the 1980s and early ’90s, juvenile crime rates increased as well. In November of 1995, political scientist John DiIulio inaccurately predicted a coming wave of “super-predators,” a term he used to describe a supposed class of bloodthirsty juveniles who would kill out of impulse, with no apparent motive. In DiIulio’s telling, super-predators were born into “moral poverty,” “surrounded by deviant, delinquent, and criminal adults in abusive, violence-ridden, fatherless, Godless, and jobless settings.” He predicted “the trouble will be greatest in black inner-city neighborhoods” but would inevitably spread to “even the rural heartland.”
DiIulio wild predictions never came true. The number of homicides committed by youth between 1993 and 1999 dropped by 68%. By 2001, youth crime was at its lowest point in 25 years. DiIulio admitted he was wrong, but the narrative had taken on a life of its own. In a 1998 survey, 62% of respondents said they believed youth crime was on the rise, even as youth violent crime rates were at historic lows.
Fearful of being labeled soft on crime, politicians embraced the racist myth of the super-predator. In the 1990s, most states, including Oregon with Measure 11, passed or amended legislation that made it easier to prosecute kids as adults. The federal government does not track the number of kids who were prosecuted as adults nationwide — but the number of incarcerated youth spiked in the wake of these laws. And until recently, Oregon had the second-highest rate of youth transfers into adult court in the country.
After Kinkel was sentenced under Measure 11’s mandatory minimums, tough-on-crime politicians pointed to him as the reason the law should exist. When an effort to repeal Measure 11 made it on the ballot in 2000, 73% of Oregon voters chose to keep the harsh sentencing law in place — a decision made “with Kip Kinkel’s shooting rampage in the background,” The Associated Press reported at the time.
Although Kinkel is one of the state’s most notorious juvenile offenders, the law that led to the explosion of juvenile incarcerations in Oregon wasn’t drafted with kids like him in mind. In the years leading up to its passage, local law enforcement and the media warned about Black gang members from Los Angeles coming to Portland, the largest city in a state with a history of Black exclusionary laws.
From the outset, Black and brown kids were disproportionately charged with Measure 11 crimes: In 1995, Black youth were 7.3 times more likely to be indicted for a Measure 11 offense than white youth. That racial disparity only got worse. By 2012, Black youth were 26.1 times more likely to face a Measure 11 indictment than white youth. In 2019, 23.1% of juvenile cases petitioned to adult court involved Black youth and 22.3% involved Hispanic youth, despite the state’s population being just 2.2% Black and 13.4% Hispanic. Unlike Kinkel, many juvenile lifers grew up dealing with poverty, violence or abuse.
Even as the country locks up fewer kids overall, the racial disparity remains egregious: In 2016, there were more than twice as many Black people serving juvenile life without parole sentences than white people.
The systemic racism that created this disparity can also make it harder for adolescents of color to access resources once inside the system. “The unofficial knowledge was me and kids that looked like me, we went to the prison,” said Sterling Cunio, whose mother is white and father is Black, and who identifies as mixed-race. “It’s the difference between somebody going to group therapy and somebody going to a war zone,” added Cunio who, at 17, was transferred out of MacLaren into adult prison to serve two consecutive life sentences plus 23 years.
Once Kinkel got to MacLaren, he was placed in an intensive treatment program for kids convicted of violent crimes, the product of an earlier era when the emphasis was on rehabilitation rather than punishment. The program was led by Orin Bolstad, the psychologist who testified at Kinkel’s sentencing hearing. For kids like Kinkel, who were facing lifelong sentences, the treatment program could sometimes feel like a cruel joke. No matter how hard they worked, they weren’t going to return to society — they were heading to adult prison, which they were taught to fear. Staffers warned the boys they were likely to get raped in adult prison and used the threat of being transferred early as a fear tactic to keep them in line.
Still, it was the first time Kinkel received real treatment for his mental illness. Bolstad’s program included intensive group therapy, and Sack, the psychiatrist who testified at Kinkel’s hearing, worked with him to find a medication that worked and didn’t have unmanageable side effects. Kinkel had to be handcuffed and shackled in order to go to Sack’s office, so Sack would walk over to Kinkel’s unit and meet with him there instead. It was a small gesture, but Sack gained his trust. (Youth are no longer handcuffed to travel within Oregon Youth Authority facilities, said Sarah Evans, the agency’s deputy communications manager.)
“I had tremendous, tremendous guilt. Tremendous, tremendous shame for my criminal actions, that I feel intensely to this day. Those are always there, and those will never go away.”
Over time, the delusions began to fade and the voices became less frequent and quieter. Kinkel began to realize that some of his mostly deeply held beliefs — about the chip in his brain and the imminent foreign invasion — weren’t real. The sense of being under constant threat started to soften.
At the same time, he began seeing several therapists, including one he still works with today. “I had tremendous, tremendous guilt. Tremendous, tremendous shame for my criminal actions, that I feel intensely to this day. Those are always there, and those will never go away.”
That shame, and the desire to understand how he could have done what he did, helped him eventually accept his diagnosis. “There was a sense of, ‘I did these things. I hurt these people. I killed my own parents, who I absolutely loved and who loved me and were good people. I shot and wounded completely innocent people that didn’t deserve anything bad to happen to them at all. I killed two boys who were completely innocent. And I need — I have to understand why I did this,’” Kinkel said.
The message Kinkel got from his doctors was: “You need to look inside yourself and find the things that led you to be able to kill and harm so many people. But doing so doesn’t make you a piece of shit. It doesn’t make you ‘retarded.’ It doesn’t make you evil. It makes you a human being. But if you’re going to be the best human being you can be, you need to accept these really dark, ugly, horrifying pieces of yourself.’”
Kinkel’s experience is not indicative of the level of mental health support typically available in prison. Because of the high-profile nature of Kinkel’s crime, staff and administrators at MacLaren were eager to avoid any incidents involving him. As a result, his stability was treated as a priority, he said.
Kinkel completed the violent offender treatment program and helped facilitate group conversations with younger participants. He earned the highest honor in his unit, a BLASER tag, which stood for Bold Leaders Achieving Safe Everlasting Return to Society.
But Kinkel, along with many of his friends, had no hopes of being able to actually return to society. “We had been thrown away,” Kinkel said. “So we were going to build empathy, we were going to build communication skills, and we were going to learn and delve into the parts of ourselves that allowed us to commit these horrible crimes, and then we were going to be inserted into an environment that was violent, chaotic and didn’t give a fuck about our humanity. And so it was a deep contradiction.”
Kinkel earned his college degree in global studies in May 2007, just a few months before his 25th birthday, when he would age out of MacLaren. His sister came to the ceremony. “I remember her saying that my parents would have been really proud of me, which was a really powerful thing for me to experience,” Kinkel said. But with his looming transfer to adult custody, it was hard to fully enjoy that day.
“I remember standing on the stage in the auditorium as I got my degree thinking how wonderful this was — but that I would probably be in solitary confinement soon,” Kinkel said. “And sure enough, a month later, I was sitting in the hole after defending myself from being physically assaulted.”
Before Kinkel was transferred to Oregon State Correctional Institution, Bolstad called Conrad Engweiler. Like Kinkel, Engweiler had received a life sentence for a crime he committed when he was 15 years old, gone through treatment at MacLaren and was serving the rest of his sentence at OSCI. Bolstad wanted Engweiler to look out for Kinkel when he arrived.
Kinkel’s infamy meant he was going to have a target on his back. Some gangs wanted to beat him up; others talked about extorting him and selling his photo and autograph online to fans of school shooters. Many of the corrections officers hated Kinkel because of his crime and couldn’t be counted on to protect him.
Engweiler was part of an informal group of about a dozen juvenile offenders, many of whom came up through MacLaren. They looked out for one another and worked hard to create a positive community within a violent, dehumanizing environment.
Before Kinkel got to OSCI, Engweiler and his cellmate, Joe Cheadle, got to work ensuring Kinkel’s transition would be as smooth as possible. Cheadle, who was respected by leaders of the various gangs, tried to convince them to leave Kinkel alone, or at least agree to certain terms.
“I can’t tell you how much politicking went on behind the scenes to make that transition happen OK,” Engweiler said. “Joe just said right away, ’Whatever our lifer community does, Kip’s walking with me. We’re going to surround him. I’m going to teach him how to walk the yard.’”
“‘And what I’m going to establish with all the gangs is that you come at him, you come at him square. And if you put more than one person on him, there’s going to be retaliation for that stuff,’” Engweiler continued. “So Joe set a standard with the gangs.”
How Kinkel responded would be a test. It was a delicate balance: He needed to learn how to take a punch and defend himself without escalating the violence. And he would need to make it through his punishment for fighting back — another stint of solitary confinement.
Kinkel arrived at the prison in the summer of 2007. Cheadle went to visit him in his cell on his first day under the guise of doing a repair as part of his job as an electrician. “He was super scared,” Cheadle said.
The guards had instructed Kinkel to stay in his cell to avoid getting beaten up. But Cheadle knew that would be interpreted as a sign of cowardice that would only put Kinkel in more danger. “This evening,” Cheadle said, “when they call yard, I want you to go.”
When they walked the yard that night, “everybody was looking at him,” Cheadle said. “They didn’t know what the fuck to think. They didn’t understand what I was doing.”
Those who publicly aligned with Kinkel risked becoming a target of gang violence themselves. Cheadle wasn’t concerned about getting beaten up, but he did worry about the disciplinary trouble that came with fights, which could hurt his chances of being granted parole in the future.
The attack on Kinkel came a couple of weeks after he got to OSCI. He was playing basketball with Cheadle and was on his way from the drinking fountain when someone walked up and punched him in the back of the head. Kinkel swung back, mindful of Cheadle’s guidance: “You can fight back, but if that guy goes to the ground, leave him alone.”
Cheadle kept a close watch over the fight, and when a corrections officer approached, he instructed Kinkel to drop to the ground and wait to be handcuffed. The fight ended quickly, and Kinkel was sent to solitary confinement for one month — just as he had predicted. Meanwhile, Cheadle made sure to talk up Kinkel’s toughness, an effort to protect his new friend from ever having to fight again.
Kinkel’s carefully orchestrated arrival went as well as it could have. That was the last time he got in trouble in prison.
When he emerged from the hole, his new friends were waiting to continue easing him into his new environment. Engweiler got him a job as a clerk at the library, a role that was relatively safe and would make him needed by others in the prison. Eventually, with Cheadle’s help, he switched into working as an electrician, a job he’s held ever since.
Transferring to adult prison meant losing his mental health care providers at MacLaren. The level of care available at OSCI was not comparable, and the state’s corrections department initially barred Kinkel from working with any of his previous doctors or therapists.
Just before he left MacLaren, Kinkel’s psychiatrist increased the dosage of his medications, in anticipation of the stress that would accompany the move. That decision made sense to Kinkel, but once he settled in at OSCI, his new doctors were unwilling to return him to his regular dosages. Over time, the medications caused Kinkel to gain about 50 pounds and experience constant exhaustion and tremors in his tongue. He struggled to stay awake during his shifts at work and couldn’t focus long enough to read books.
His friends urged him to advocate for himself — something he didn’t have much experience doing within the rigid structure at MacLaren. “You’re overmedicated,” Kinkel remembers Engweiler telling him. “I’m not saying you don’t have mental health issues that medication will help, but you’re clearly on too much medication.”
“They’re worried about you being violent, and they don’t care that you’re a zombie. They don’t care that you’re drooling on the floor. You’re easier to manage that way.”
It took nearly five years for Kinkel to get his medications adjusted to a level where he could function — and part of it came down to luck. The corrections department decided it no longer wanted to pay for the medication he had been on, so he was switched to a cheaper, recently approved antipsychotic. By chance, the new brand was effective and didn’t cause severe side effects.
Oregon’s Department of Corrections declined to comment on Kinkel’s medical treatment, citing privacy protections.
Around the same time, Kinkel was able to resume weekly sessions in the visiting room with another therapist he knew from MacLaren, the result of constant advocacy from his sister. Initially, prison staffers mocked Kinkel — “he thinks he’s special. He needs to see his psychologist” — and made sexually suggestive comments about him meeting with a female doctor. But over time, the prison began allowing others in the prison to meet with mental health providers.
As Kinkel emerged from his over-medicated fog, Engweiler pushed him to challenge himself intellectually. They became close working their way through the literary classics that were available to them inside the prison: Emerson, Thoreau, Proust, Hemingway. As Kinkel opened up about his mental illness, Engweiler introduced him to works by writers such as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, who had their own mental health struggles. They studied the authors’ unusual thought patterns and language structures.
“That became the playground for us to kind of talk about lit and style and writing, and pull concepts,” Engweiler said.
Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake” resonated with Kinkel. “It’s long, it’s convoluted, things are intentionally misspelled. That type of writing was helpful for me to be able to organize a lot of the pressure that I was feeling,” Kinkel said. “I started trying to mimic that type of really convoluted bits and pieces thrown together — connecting philosophy and spirituality and experience with mental illness.”
“For most people, it looks like garbage, it looks crazy,” Kinkel continued. “But for me, it was a conduit to be able to organize information and my language in such a way where I was able to then get to the point where I could write with no unnecessary words in a paragraph.”
Engweiler and Cheadle both received parole and are now out of prison, but they’ve stayed close with Kinkel. Cheadle remembers how when he got his release date, some of his friends started pulling away. It was too painful for them to listen to him talk about everything he had planned when they didn’t know if they’d ever get a chance to build a life on the outside.
“But you know what? Almost every day of those last 60 days, I walked around the track with Kip, talking about all the stuff I wanted to do,” Cheadle said. “He wanted to hear it. He encouraged me. He was super loving and super proud that I was getting out.”
“That meant so much to me. I was going through a ton of stress leaving people too, and to not have anybody would have been really hard,” Cheadle said. “And it was Kip, man. Kip supported me through those 60 days to make my transition easier.”
Kinkel sees himself as part of a chain of juvenile lifers, mostly serving sentences for homicides they committed as juveniles. He benefited from the guidance of those who grew up in prison before him and now he tries to pay it forward to the young men coming in. Whenever a juvenile facing a long sentence arrives at OSCI, Kinkel and his friends are there waiting with a toothbrush, deodorant and a few commodities to ease their transition. They try to help newcomers get a job and a spot in the “honor unit,” which comes with privileges like a microwave and a soda machine — but, more important, is less violent.
“We try to welcome them into a community,” Kinkel said. “We look at it as a community of guys who are basically trying to do the right thing and just survive this environment.”
There are limits to how much of a community Kinkel and his friends can actually create. “Unauthorized organizations” — including something as trivial as a group of people playing Monopoly — can result in a disciplinary write-up. “Just saying the word ‘community’ is a red flag for security because community can transform into organization and organization can transform into gang,” Kinkel said. “So we have to be really careful about how we organize.”
Jennifer Black, a communications manager at the Oregon Department of Corrections, said in an email that the agency encourages and supports “incarcerated people working together to pursue rehabilitation.”
“Only if a group came together for a negative purpose would we be concerned,” Black wrote. “We make case-by-case determinations based upon intelligence information to determine if a group is coming together for an illicit purpose or finding a pro-social community within the prison walls.”
The predictions Kinkel’s sister, Kristin, made at his sentencing hearing 22 years ago have largely come true. “I was 21 years old, grieving the loss of my entire family, my privacy, and my faith in what kinds of things happen to good people, but for me this was perfectly clear. My brother was then, and still is, intelligent, capable, and full of potential and the desire to positively impact the world,” Kristin wrote in an email.
“I imagine your readers might expect me to describe the differences between who he is now and the monster he was portrayed to be in the media, but I can’t because he never was that monster. I think people feel a need to believe he was in order to reconcile what he did, but the sincere truth is that he was then and is now a good and accountable human being who suffers severely from a serious mental illness. The biggest change is external ― that we now know what it is and how to treat it and have been doing so successfully for many years.”
‘Fundamentally Different From Adults’
Kinkel used to think there was something special about the group of people he grew up with in prison. Despite committing horrifying crimes as kids, they had grown into high-functioning, community-focused adults who were deeply remorseful about their pasts. As he dove into the research on juveniles who offend, he learned that he and his friends were actually pretty typical.
In the mid-1990s, as states were becoming increasingly punitive toward juvenile crime, the MacArthur Foundation began funding a group of social scientists, neuroscientists and legal experts to research the developmental differences between adolescents and adults.
The group of researchers found that because brain development continues into an individual’s mid-20s, adolescents are more impulsive, more likely to seek short-term rewards than worry about long-term consequences and are more susceptible to peer pressure. Researchers concluded that individuals under the age of 16 lacked the maturity to make informed legal decisions in court. Moreover, they found that the vast majority of juveniles who commit crimes — even devastatingly harmful ones — grow out of antisocial activity as they become adults.
“This research on adolescent brain, cognitive, and psychosocial development supports the view that adolescents are fundamentally different from adults in ways that warrant their differential treatment in the justice system,” Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor who headed the MacArthur-funded group, wrote in a 2009 paper.
The group’s research was later cited in a series of Supreme Court rulings, which found that the most severe punishments are unconstitutional for juveniles. In 2005, the Supreme Court banned the death penalty for juveniles. In 2010, it ruled that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide offenses. Two years later, the court prohibited mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles. A subsequent ruling in 2016 required the ban on mandatory life without parole sentences to be applied retroactively and affirmed that even discretionary life without parole sentences should be reserved for “the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.”
The Supreme Court’s shift on juvenile justice made thousands of people potentially eligible for resentencing and provided the possibility of freedom to people who expected to die in prison. The precedent set by the court also prompted many states to reexamine their harsh juvenile sentencing practices. In April, Maryland became the 25th state, in addition to Washington, D.C., to ban life without the possibility of parole for crimes committed by kids.
But people like Kinkel, who is serving a discretionary sentence equivalent to life without parole, still don’t enjoy any retroactive relief. In 2020, there were 1,465 people serving life without parole, 6,916 serving life with parole, and 1,716 serving virtual life for crimes they committed while younger than 18, according to Ashley Nellis, a senior research analyst at The Sentencing Project. Most of those people do not benefit from the Supreme Court rulings.
Floyd Prozanski was elected to the Oregon state legislature in 1994, during the same election cycle when voters passed Measure 11, the mandatory minimums initiative. Before that, he was deputy district attorney in the Lane County D.A.’s office — the office that would later prosecute Kinkel. When Prozanski was a senior in high school, his older sister was fatally shot by her domestic partner after trying to end the relationship.
“There’s a lot of details that I won’t share with you,” Prozanski told me on our first call. “But I guess I want to put that out there for you to understand — I’m not coming in as just a quote-unquote politician. I’m someone who has life experience as a victim.”
But Prozanski actually opposed Measure 11 from its inception because he believed it would give prosecutors an unfair upper hand. Now the Democratic chair of Oregon’s Senate Judiciary Committee, he’s spent decades in the state legislature looking for ways to undo the mandatory minimum sentencing.
In 2018, Prozanski formed a working group to examine the way kids are treated in the criminal justice system and identify opportunities for reform. Bobbin Singh, the executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, was part of that group, and he wanted policymakers to meet directly with the people affected by their decisions. He started out by inviting a group of lawmakers to visit the prison and get to know some of the men who grew up inside. Those who agreed to come were assured their participation would be kept confidential.
Meanwhile, Althea Seloover, a mitigation investigator on Kinkel’s team who works at the OJRC’s Youth Justice Project, drafted the meeting format, modeled on a restorative justice symposium she had attended. She helped the incarcerated participants prepare to discuss their identities and their roles in their communities. In prison, people often introduce themselves by disclosing the crime they committed or the length of their sentence; Seloover encouraged participants to introduce themselves by their current community roles and jobs, not just the harm they caused as youth.
The incarcerated men did everything they could to make their guests feel safe and comfortable. They arranged to meet in the prison’s nondenominational chapel, the prettiest and quietest place in the facility. They provided cookies and coffee they purchased with their own money from the commissary. They made sure visitors who were affected by Kinkel’s crime wouldn’t be in the position of having to speak with him unless they wanted to.
On Oct. 29, 2018, roughly 30 people gathered inside the prison’s chapel and sat in a large circle, intentionally alternating seats between an incarcerated and non-incarcerated participant. The discomfort hung in the air as they made their way around the circle introducing themselves. Nearly everyone in the room already knew who Kinkel was.
Some participants in subsequent meetings would later admit they thought about walking out when they first spotted him, choosing to stay only out of polite obligation.
After introductions, the group moved into two concentric circles, with the incarcerated people in the outer circle and the visitors on the inside. Each person sat facing someone from the other circle and answered prepared questions.
They started easy: “What’s something that you’ve wanted to do that you’ve never done?” (Kinkel has always wanted to go to a concert.)
Throughout the day, participants moved into different groups and discussed increasingly weighty questions. By the end of the four-hour facilitated discussion, some participants were in tears.
“What happened very quickly was that initial uncomfortable closeness of being next to these people that, on our side, people who had killed human beings, and then, on their side, people who had incarcerated us and made decisions about our lives, the uncomfortable sense evaporated,” Kinkel said.
Prozanski was one of the lawmakers who came to that meeting, where he met Kinkel for the first time. From what he had read and heard about Kinkel, he expected to meet someone more “deranged,” he said. The two men spoke briefly that day.
“What I learned is that he would just like to be able to pay his debt to society by helping others and not having people held back because of who he is and what he did,” Prozanski said. “It’s one of those situations that made me pause and made me think twice as to, ‘Is justice being served at this time?’ And that’s an open question.”
Sherrie Sprenger, a Republican state representative at the time, came to the meeting, too. A former deputy sheriff, Sprenger had spent the previous two decades thinking of Kinkel as a monster. She remembers the day of the shooting — how it made her scared for her own young son.
“I remember that day thinking I never want my kid to go to school, this is an unsafe world because there’s a lot of people like Kip Kinkel in it,” Sprenger said. “I didn’t like Kip, and I had no use for Kip because he shattered and destroyed lives and took away dreams of people. And made it hard for this young mom to want to send her kids to a public school, where other kids might kill people, too.”
But she spoke with Kinkel and asked him tough questions. She found him to be respectful and remorseful. “I asked him, ‘So, how about your sister? You killed her parents.’”
“And he got real quiet, and he says, ‘My sister’s the best.’”
They spoke about sentencing reform for juveniles, but Kinkel never advocated for his own release, Sprenger said. She told Kinkel she didn’t think he was a monster anymore but as someone with serious mental health issues who appeared to be receiving effective treatment.
Sprenger said she is glad she got the chance to talk to him, and she continued to check in on him. “But nothing he says — and I’d say this to his face — nothing he says makes it OK that his parents and students are still dead, and lives are shattered,” Sprenger told me. “And I think sometimes we get into the paradigm of understanding the offender better, which is smart and good. But nothing we understand about the offender makes the loss less of a loss, or a more justified loss. It just doesn’t.”
“I’m pretty certain that Kip feels like he’s the poster child for why juveniles that commit murder receive these extraordinarily long sentences or life sentences,” Sprenger added. “And the reality is, it’s hard — I’m not saying it’s fair — it’s hard for the general public to remove Kip Kinkel from their thinking when you’re talking about releasing murderers from prison.”
The stakeholder meetings, as they came to be known, continued until the pandemic put things on pause, with participation from judges, legislators and representatives from other elected offices. For many of the incarcerated participants, these meetings were the first time in their lives they had had the chance to meaningfully advocate for themselves and their community.
Seth Koch, a friend of Kinkel’s who is serving life without the possibility of parole for a crime he committed when he was 15, was one of the incarcerated participants in those meetings. “You kind of go from being a person that has absolutely no agency — you’re basically the garbage of society. The way that prison functions and the way that staff are, you get the real true understanding that you’re not anybody,” Koch said. “And then, all of a sudden, the next day, you’ve got senators and representatives and judges coming in to meet with you and actually paying attention to what you have to say.”
‘Kip Kinkel Will Walk’
In early 2019, a few months after Prozanski and Sprenger met Kinkel, lawmakers started debating the bill that had come out of the juvenile justice working group — what would eventually be known as Senate Bill 1008. The bill, which needed two-thirds support in both the House and Senate to pass, would end the automatic transfer of juveniles into the adult system — instead, a judge would have to grant specific permission for a transfer. For juveniles convicted in adult court, the bill would provide a “second look” hearing halfway through their sentence to evaluate their rehabilitation. It would also allow juveniles with less than two years left in their sentence to be released by a judge before aging out of youth custody into adult prison, a recognition of the reality that exposure to adult prison can increase the risk of recidivism. Finally, the bill would eliminate life without parole for juveniles by creating a process in which anyone convicted of a crime before they are 18 gets a chance at parole after 15 years of incarceration.
If passed, the legislation would mean no kid would spend the rest of their life in prison without the chance to make their case for release. It also provided hope that some people already facing excessive sentences for crimes they committed as children might have the possibility of eventual release.
Incarcerated juvenile offenders knew the bill was never going to be truly retroactive — the political will wasn’t there. But there was another way they hoped the bill could provide relief to people who were convicted of crimes as kids before its passage: resentencing. The bill was written to apply “to sentences imposed on or after January 1, 2020” rather than crimes committed after the date the bill went into effect. If a case were to come up for resentencing — either because of a successful post-conviction appeal or because of a hearing triggered by the recent Supreme Court rulings — it stood to reason that the new sentence should be based on the current laws.
S.B. 1008 attracted surprising supporters, including the heads of the Oregon Department of Corrections and Oregon Youth Authority, and state Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum. But as the bill gained momentum, its opponents organized a fearmongering campaign centered on the false notion that if S.B. 1008 passed, it would only be only a matter of time until Kip Kinkel walked free.
“Why is it this isn’t a headline story everywhere in this state saying: ‘Kip Kinkel Will Walk If Senate Bill 1008 Passes’?” conservative talk radio show host Lars Larson asked, minutes after accusing liberal philanthropist George Soros of buying off district attorneys’ offices, perpetuating a favorite right-wing, anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.
The bill “will grant a parole hearing next year to violent offenders like Kip Kinkel who are now adults and will require the Parole Board to release them if they meet friendly criteria that prohibit the consideration of public safety or the seriousness of the crime,” former Multnomah County Chief Deputy District Attorney Norm Frink inaccurately claimed in written testimony submitted to the Oregon House Committee on Judiciary for an April 2019 hearing.
“It is a real stir that’s created in my community by this. The fact that Kip Kinkel — whether or not it’s retroactive — it’s going to be litigated. And that the scars are not healed in my community, from those events, and the trauma is still very real,” Lane County District Attorney Patty Perlow testified at the same hearing.
The state Senate passed S.B. 1008 in April. With just one final battle ahead, a vote in the state House, Crime Victims United released a video featuring the brother of one of the boys killed by Kinkel. “My name is Adam Walker. In 1998, Kip Kinkel walked into Thurston High School with a gun and killed my brother Benjamin,” Adam said. “It doesn’t matter if he was 15. Kip Kinkel terrorized our community. The victims don’t get second chances. Why should the offenders?”
“Politicians should vote no on Senate Bill 1008, so this never happens again,” Adam said as the video closed with the picture and phone number of Jennifer Williamson, then the state’s House majority leader and head of the judiciary committee. Williamson’s office reported hearing about robocalls with a similar message.
Kinkel watched the legislative hearings in the library and heard about the robocalls at the time. It became clear to him just how much his name was being weaponized to stoke fear and backlash against the bill. “It was just an incredibly hectic, nerve-wracking and guilt-invoking time because it was pretty clear that they were going to use me as the reason that this shouldn’t impact kids who are already in the system and who are already trapped.”
Cunio, who is incarcerated at a different prison than Kinkel, was watching the hearings, too. The two men have never met, but Cunio has spent years hearing about Kinkel and trying to differentiate himself.
“You can have youth offenders doing incredible things,” Cunio said. But “their narratives get lost.”
“The conversation isn’t about the prospect of transformation or what people have done in their life decades and decades after this horrible offense. All of that progress, all of that growth, it’s like it’s just silenced by the narrative,” Cunio continued. “If you talk about juvenile justice, they talk about 1008, they running stories on Kip. And it ain’t fair because he was a kid, too. But that’s what it’s been like. We’ve lived in the shadows of these predominant stories, these narratives.”
Those who invoked Kinkel’s name as a reason to oppose juvenile justice reform didn’t know or didn’t care about the rehabilitative work he had done since his crimes. S.B. 1008 also wouldn’t automatically lead to a more lenient sentence for Kinkel — or preclude any juvenile convicted of similar crimes in the future from spending their life in prison.
The bill would eradicate the automatic transfer of any kid into the adult system, where they would face mandatory minimum sentences — but it would not prevent a judge from waiving individual cases into adult court. And the only way someone like Kinkel could benefit from the bill’s passage would be if his case came up for resentencing, in the event that a judge determined there was an issue with his trial or because his sentence was found to be unconstitutional. Even if that happened, a judge could still give him a new sentence equivalent to life in prison. In this hypothetical scenario, because Kinkel has been imprisoned for more than 15 years, he would be eligible for a parole hearing before a board tasked with considering his age at the time of the crime and his maturation since. But it’s far from guaranteed that, even if all that happened, the board would grant his release.
“In Oregon, Kip is the boogeyman that people bring up any time there’s some type of movement on a juvenile bill that might let people who have long sentences get out earlier,” said Koch, who has known Kinkel for nearly 20 years. “To most people, he’s the school shooter from Thurston. They don’t know Kip Kinkel, they just know a name.”
“It’s just frustrating because it’s hard to see someone I care about that much used in that way.”
The debate around life sentences for juveniles often collides with two difficult-to-reconcile truths. Many people who commit unimaginable acts of violence as kids grow into adults who can safely exist in society. But for that to happen would be deeply painful for many of their victims.
Betina Lynn, who gave a statement at Kinkel’s sentencing hearing, told me that the thought of Kinkel getting out and coming back to “finish the job he started” is “literally terrifying” to some of the survivors whose image of Kinkel is still the 15-year-old boy who dramatically altered the course of her life.
Growing up, Lynn loved to travel and she always imagined she would leave Oregon as an adult. But after the shooting, she couldn’t. She failed most of her classes her first year of college, “a very expensive undertaking,” she said. “And then I had to crawl back home and spend two or three years working unfulfilling jobs and living at home because I just couldn’t deal.”
Lynn eventually earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Oregon and got a job at the school — where she still works today. The idea of starting over somewhere new, where people don’t have an understanding of her past trauma, is daunting. But staying in Oregon means being constantly confronted with painful memories and people who associate her with the shooting. “That’s one of the reasons why I’ve long wanted to move away from Oregon — it’s not about escaping, because I can’t escape it, I’m going to carry it with me wherever I go, it’s not like I can just put it on a shelf and act like it never existed.”
Lynn sometimes feels resentful of the ways she has been physically, emotionally and financially impacted by the shooting. There’s a sense that it has held her back from reaching her full potential, and she’s reminded of it often. Her ankle is weaker than it used to be and has permanent nerve damage from the shooting, so she tries to avoid hikes that are too steep. “It’s less about the physical issue itself, and all about the reminder of why it exists,” Lynn said. “There’s added things I have to think about as I move around in the world.”
“Even now, more than 23 years later, I and many other survivors are still dealing with the fallout. We are all serving life sentences right alongside him.”
"In Oregon, Kip is the boogeyman that people bring up any time there’s some type of movement on a juvenile bill that might let people who have long sentences get out earlier. To most people, he’s the school shooter from Thurston. They don’t know Kip Kinkel, they just know a name."
On May 23, 2019, S.B. 1008 went up for its final vote in the House. For it to pass, 40 of the chamber’s 60 lawmakers would need to vote for it, including some Republicans. The guys at OSCI couldn’t watch the vote live, so they called their friends and family members throughout the day, checking for updates. But the vote dragged late into the evening, past the time when prisoners were sent to their cells, cut off from updates from their loved ones on the outside.
Cayce French, who is serving a life sentence for a crime he committed as a 17-year-old, woke up around 5 a.m. the next day. Like the other juvenile lifers at OSCI, French had lain awake for much of the night, anxiously wondering if S.B. 1008 had passed.
He was supposed to start mopping the floors that morning, but he knew he probably had a message with the results waiting for him from his then-girlfriend, so he sneaked over to a nearby kiosk to check.
The bill had passed, 40-18 — just barely reaching the required two-thirds majority.
French was elated. “All these plans I had, like being involved in a social justice nonprofit and starting my own — I felt like that was going to come to fruition soon.”
But first he wanted to make sure his friends heard the news. He made his way through the unit discreetly knocking on doors. “Passed, passed, passed,” he said as he walked by each door.
The sense of joy and relief was overwhelming. The men at OSCI were proud that by sharing some of their most vulnerable moments, they had helped convince lawmakers to protect other kids from going through what they did. And for some of them, it was the first time since they were sentenced that they had any hope of eventual freedom.
“It was like your team just won the Super Bowl,” Koch said. “It was that emotional, people were crying. It was one of the happier days.”
Koch called his family to explain what the news meant for him. “This doesn’t let me out of prison,” he said, “but it gives me an actual road to try to maybe come home, potentially.”
For Kinkel, an incredible weight had been lifted. He didn’t know if or when the new legislation would help him. But at the very least, his friends wouldn’t be harmed by his infamy. Mark Wilson, an incarcerated legal assistant serving two life sentences, downloaded the video recording of the vote from the previous day and played it at the law library for everyone to watch. Watching the vote was suspenseful, even though they all knew how it ended. Because Wilson was 18 at the time of his crime, he didn’t stand to benefit from S.B. 1008. But he was happy for his friends.
Sprenger, the Republican lawmaker who met with Kinkel in prison, was one of the no votes. She told me she voted no because she felt that victims and their advocates were left out of the process of drafting the legislation, resulting in a one-sided bill. Asked what changes she would have liked to see in the bill to better reflect victims’ needs, Sprenger declined to specify.
As the juvenile lifers started allowing themselves to feel tentative hope about their futures, Prozanski’s office was fielding complaints about S.B. 1008 from people who had identified the resentencing loophole. They were specifically worried about Kinkel getting out, Prozanski recalled.
It didn’t take long for lawmakers to quickly, and quietly, reverse course. In June 2019, just over a month after S.B. 1008 passed, lawmakers passed another bill that specifically excluded people like Kinkel from the reforms and barred them from any potential resentencing relief completely.
To the incarcerated juvenile offenders, it was a stunning betrayal. They felt like bargaining chips who had been traded away as part of a political game.
“It was like, there was hope, there was light at the end of the tunnel. We just have to get to this place,” Kinkel said. “And then the legislature that just gave us 1008 came back and said, ’No, we are specifically, intentionally, purposely with everything that we have, going to take this away from the kids already in the system.”
“It felt like they had just stabbed you in the back,” Koch said of the lawmakers. “You have these emotional experiences with some of them and then you see they just sold us down the river.”
“I’d say as happy as we were when it passed, it was much worse when they took it away,” Koch continued. “I was pretty devastated. I knew Kip was devastated. Essentially every friend you have in here feels the same way. It’s hard to even look at each other because it just hurt so bad.”
Prozanski told me that he always envisioned that S.B. 1008 would not affect people like Kinkel. The second bill was a clarification rather than a departure from the original intention, he said.
Rod Berg, a prison chaplain who has known Kinkel since he was a teen, visited him after they got the bad news. “I remember dreading that visit because I knew it was going to be a hard one,” Berg said. It ended up being an encouraging visit, he said, because Kinkel was already brainstorming next steps. “He just refuses to do what the system wants him to do, and that’s just roll over and be angry and negative. He’s just choosing not to go there.”
In December 2019, a few months after the legislative fight, Kinkel got a Christmas card from a group of guys incarcerated in a juvenile facility who were facing long sentences but had not yet aged into adult prison. They were also left behind by S.B. 1008. The guys hadn’t met Kinkel, but they knew who he was and they had heard about his outreach with elected officials. They thanked him and said they appreciated his efforts.
“That was huge for me,” Kinkel said. “Because there are so many people that are being negatively impacted by who I am. By my simple existence. And so many of them have a right to be frustrated with me, to be angry at me ... and they are still supportive.”
Singh’s organization, the Oregon Justice Resource Center, has identified 234 people, including Kinkel, who are currently incarcerated and could benefit from S.B. 1008 being applied to those who committed crimes before its passage.
“By not making these laws actually extend backwards or allow people to benefit from current knowledge, we end up creating a situation in which we can’t have finality because these cases are fundamentally unjust,” Singh said. “And the courts will have to deal with them because you cannot have the same class of people being treated differently because of an arbitrary date.”
Kinkel is asking a federal court to review his case, but when he talks about his hopes for further reform, it’s usually in the context of what he wants for his friends. We’ve spent hours talking about how important it is to him that he not be used as a reason to keep others in prison. But he talks less about his own future.
After the Supreme Court prohibited mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles, Kinkel’s lawyers argued that his own de facto life without parole sentence violated Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. In 2018, Oregon’s Supreme Court upheld the legality of Kinkel’s sentence, claiming that he represented “the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption” rather than the “unfortunate yet transient immaturity” of youth. The court’s reasoning was that Kinkel would never outgrow schizophrenia.
Not everyone on the bench agreed, however. “Petitioner’s crimes were absolutely horrific. Those crimes were committed by a child with a treatable mental disorder. They do not show irreparable corruption,” Judge James C. Egan wrote in a dissent. “Both his age and his mental disorder reduce his moral culpability. And both his age and the fact that his mental disorder is treatable weigh against both an explicitly retributive sentence and a sentence aimed at incapacitating him for the rest of his life.”
The principles the Supreme Court relied on in prohibiting mandatory juvenile life without parole “cannot allow a conclusion that it is acceptable to imprison for the entirety of their lives any of these youth offenders whose mental illness will likely result in treatable conditions in adulthood without some manifestation of irreparable corruption,” Egan wrote. “In doing so, we buy in to the narrative that the problem is mental illness.”
As Kinkel and his legal team strategized about next steps in his case, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that upended the legal landscape for juvenile sentencing. In April of this year, the court’s six conservatives justices ruled that a judge does not need to find that a person under 18 who commits a homicide is “permanently incorrigible” before sentencing them to life without parole — a contradiction of the court’s previous position.
“It was a mean-spirited decision,” Kinkel said during a phone call the next day. “It’s soul crushing. I don’t know how else to describe it. Those justices … basically just told us to go die. That our lives don’t matter. That our existences don’t have any meaning. That our future should only be torment, pain, suffering and misery.”
During one of our first conversations, I asked Kinkel if he hoped he would ever get out of prison.
“I think that there’s a few different ways to answer that,” Kinkel said.
“I’ve learned through a lot of years of therapy and self work that I really need to be careful with expectations. So I don’t want to have false hope. But hope is always really important. So, of course, there’s always a sense of hope that maybe I can leave an environment such as this that is miserable and designed to torment and inflict, basically, pain onto my body and soul. With that being said, I don’t know what that would look like.
“So, I don’t allow myself to spend too much time thinking about that because I think that can actually bring more suffering.”