Two families and an unthinkable crime at summer camp that binds them together. A new podcast from WBUR, Boston’s NPR, and The Marshall Project explores America’s opaque parole system through a 1986 murder case and asks: How much time in prison is enough? Who gets to decide? And, when someone commits a terrible crime, what does redemption look like?
Two Sons, Lost
Why did Jacob Wideman murder Eric Kane?
In 1986, the two 16-year-olds were rooming together on a summer camp trip to the Grand Canyon when Jacob fatally — and inexplicably — stabbed Eric.
That night, Jacob went on the run, absconding with the camp’s rented Oldsmobile and thousands of dollars in traveler’s checks. Before long, he turned himself in and eventually confessed to the killing — although he couldn’t explain what drove him to do it.
It would take years of therapy and medical treatment behind bars before Jacob could begin to understand what was going through his mind that night. It would take even longer to try to explain it to his family, to his victim’s family and to parole board members, who would decide whether he deserved to be free ever again.
This debut episode of “Violation,” a podcast from WBUR and The Marshall Project, introduces the story of the crime that has bound two families together for decades.
Jacob’s father, John Edgar Wideman, is an acclaimed author of many books on race, violence and criminal justice. He spoke with Violation host Beth Schwartzapfel in a rare, in-depth interview about his son’s case that listeners will hear throughout the series, including this premiere.
Not long after Jacob Wideman murdered his summer camp roommate, Eric Kane, in 1986 — seemingly with no motive — a question emerged in the breathless news coverage of the tragedy: Was Jake a “bad seed”?
It was no accident that some reporters latched onto the phrase. After all, it was plucked straight from perhaps the most famous book written by Jake’s own father, acclaimed author John Edgar Wideman, about his family’s experience with violence, trauma and incarceration.
But John Wideman wasn’t writing about his son Jake when he used the phrase “bad seed” in his seminal memoir, “Brothers and Keepers.” The book was published in 1984, two years before Jake murdered Eric. Instead, John was writing about his own younger brother Robby, Jake’s uncle, who years earlier had participated in a robbery that went very wrong. A man died, and although Robby didn’t pull the trigger, he was sentenced to life in prison.
“The bad seed. The good seed. Mommy’s been saying for as long as I can remember: ‘That Robby, he wakes up in the morning looking for the party,’” John Edgar Wideman writes in “Brothers and Keepers” — and reads aloud in this latest episode of “Violation,” a podcast series from The Marshall Project and WBUR. This idea from John’s book, of going “bad,” would be applied to Jake, too, although John was disdainful of the concept.
“Bad Seed,” Part Two of “Violation,” tells the story of Jake’s Uncle Robby through interviews with John as well as with Jake, who remembers having epiphanies as a boy that he would somehow follow his uncle’s path. The episode also brings listeners through the harrowing weeks and months after the murder of Eric Kane, when Jake Wideman turned himself into authorities and began his long journey through the criminal justice system.
Ultimately, this episode asks: What should happen to kids like Jake?
Life Without Parole
Imagine the worst day of your life, when you did the one thing you are most ashamed of. Now imagine having to convince a panel of strangers — who suspect you might be lying — how sorry you are. After years of preparing for this moment, you get only minutes to make your case. And the stakes couldn’t be higher: The rest of your life depends on whether or not the strangers believe you.
This is how people seeking parole often describe the experience. Daniel Medwed, a law professor at Northeastern University, describes parole hearings as “a trap for the unwary,” where those who are mentally unprepared for the emotional complexities of the process can find themselves at a grave disadvantage.
Every year in the United States, tens of thousands of people appear before parole boards asking to be released from prison. These boards play an outsized role in the criminal justice system — how much time someone actually spends in prison, or in some cases, whether they get out at all, is often decided not by a judge or jury, but by a parole board. And yet, few people understand how they work.
Part 3 of Violation examines parole boards, largely secretive institutions that operate in many states with few rules and little oversight. These panels are supposed to be independent, but often do their work under pressure from the politicians who appoint them. In the best of circumstances, parole board members are assigned a virtually impossible task: to predict what human beings they barely know are going to do in the future. And they have people’s lives and the public’s safety in their hands.
What happens at parole boards is a huge part of Jacob Wideman’s story, and his story tells us a lot about the parole system in America. After serving 25 years behind bars for killing his summer camp roommate, Eric Kane, Wideman went before a parole board in Arizona for the first time. Starting with his first hearing in 2011, he was denied parole over and over.
Except for one time.
How do you build a meaningful life in prison, knowing you might never be free? What if whether you might one day be free hinges on your ability to build a meaningful life in prison? In Part 4 of “Violation," we follow Jacob Wideman’s decades-long journey through the Arizona prison system and hear how he prepared to tell his life story to the parole board.
Two years after he murdered Eric Kane, Jake was transferred from county jail to the Arizona Department of Corrections to begin serving a life sentence. At 18 years old, he was thrust into a world where the only way to feel safe was through physical aggression and bravado. He had many years of practice pretending he wasn’t suffering from mental health struggles in his youth, but now, Jake had to push those struggles even further out of sight as he faced a series of challenges in prison, each more difficult than the last.
“Heart test” is prison shorthand for proving yourself when you first arrive in the facility — standing up for yourself and not snitching to guards after you’ve been assaulted, for example. But the physical heart tests of Jake’s early years would give way to heart tests of a different kind: a slow and painful journey to identify and manage his mental health problems, and a search for love, even through prison bars. Eventually he would have to stitch all these experiences together to tell the parole board a compelling life story, in the hopes that they would one day find him worthy of release.
In 2016, after 30 years behind bars and seven hearings in front of the Arizona parole board, Jacob Wideman was released from prison.
Being on parole is a strange hybrid between prison and freedom. You’re still technically serving your sentence, but in the community. When Jake first got out, he was on home arrest, a strict version of parole. He had to wear an ankle monitor so the state could track his whereabouts, and he couldn’t leave his house without permission.
Jake also had to follow more than two dozen separate parole conditions, among them: no driving; no contact with minors, no drinking alcohol. Not following any one of the rules could land him back in prison on a moment’s notice. And the vague catchall condition, “I will follow all directives I am given, either verbal or written.”
This last one would come back to haunt him.
On any given day, a quarter of incarcerated people nationwide are there for breaking the rules of their parole or probation. These behaviors are called technical violations and can include things like moving to a new apartment without permission or failing to attend a drug treatment program.
You may have heard the term “mass incarceration” — this idea that the U.S. locks up more people than any country in the world. But lately, scholars and activists have also been talking about “mass supervision.” There are almost two million people in U.S. prisons, but there are almost four million people on probation or parole.
In Part 5 of "Violation," we examine what life is like for the millions of people on parole in the U.S., and describe what happened when Jacob Wideman was on parole. Jake didn’t know it when he was first released, but his freedom would only last nine months — and there were people on the outside working to put him back inside.
'Your Life Is About To Change'
Six months after Jacob Wideman was released from prison on home arrest, he appeared before the parole board for a routine check-in hearing. His parole officer told the board that Jake was doing well: Jake’s employers and therapists gave him positive reviews, as did the director at his halfway house and the landlord at his apartment complex.
But other people were coming to a different conclusion.
About a week before the hearing, Jake’s parole officer had told him that he had received complaints that Jake had committed numerous violations of the terms of his parole — violations that, if he had committed them, could cost him his freedom.
The officer also told him something that startled him: A private investigator could be watching him.
“It brought home to me the people who didn't want me to be out were keeping an exceptionally close eye on me, and that, you know, they were willing to go to some pretty drastic lengths to try to find ways to get me put back in prison,” Jake said later in an interview from prison.
Soon after that routine check-in hearing before the parole board, Jake was re-arrested.
In Part 6 of "Violation," we hear interviews and testimony from Jake, his attorneys, parole officials and others as we piece together the events leading up to the parole violation that sent Jake behind bars again — possibly for life.
Deep dive into our criminal rehabilitation system
Solid journalism, definitely on the side criminal justice reform, so you think we have a perfect system then you won’t like this… but do you really think it’s perfect?
Interesting, but too one sided
Horrific crime and I can understand why the victim’s family doesn’t want to participate in more publicity for the murderer. As the years go by the murderer really has tried to get more people on his side and deceased victim can’t refute Jake’s statements. Unbelievable his 2nd wife let Jake in house with her young children and tried to hide marriage from her ex husband.
I appreciate the effort to make the flaws in the parole system known- I had no idea how it worked and it surprised me. But wow… the vías is wild. Not a great case to make their point. I can see both sides but the victim gets ignored, and I really was left conflicted about the entire thing by the end.