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After serving 41 years, Iowa woman convicted of murder asks for commutation

Judy White, convicted in 1979 of West Branch murder of Ady Jensen, has support from warden and Iowa Attorney General

Judy White, who is asking Gov. Kim Reynolds to commute her life prison sentence for first-degree murder, appears here fr
Judy White, who is asking Gov. Kim Reynolds to commute her life prison sentence for first-degree murder, appears here from prison in a video chat with her daughter and granddaughter. (Submitted photo)
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Judy White, convicted in 1979 of conspiring to murder Ady Jensen in West Branch, is asking Gov. Kim Reynolds to commute her life prison sentence, saying that after 41 years she has served more time than anyone else in the case and more time than outlined in a 1982 plea deal.

Although former Gov. Tom Vilsack declined in 2005 to commute White’s life sentence to a term of years, White’s family is hopeful Reynolds — who has spoken about the value of second chances — will allow the 74-year-old grandmother the possibility of parole.

“This time is probably the most hopeful I’ve personally felt,” said Cynthia Djengue, 51, of Phoenix, one of White’s five children. “Kim Reynolds has actually said things about wanting to give people second chances. She had a second chance on a (drunken driving charge) and then became governor. She seems to feel maybe women, in particular, deserve second chances.”

Reynolds, who has until Aug. 25 to decide on White’s case, has never commuted a life prison sentence since she came into office in 2017. There has been only one commutation in Iowa since 2012 and that was for Rasberry Williams, of Waterloo, in April 2013.

• READ MORE: Iowa’s modern governors grant few commutations

Support for White’s commutation comes from more than 60 people, including the warden of Iowa’s women’s prison, chair of the Iowa Board of Parole and Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who said White’s is the first commutation he’s endorsed in his 37 years in office.

“I do not take this recommendation lightly,” Miller wrote in a Feb. 28 letter to the Parole Board. “Indeed, this is the first such letter I have ever written in my career.”

Murder-for-hire plot

Miller said White’s life sentence should be commuted to a period of years, allowing the possibility of parole, because she was the “least culpable” of Jensen’s murder in 1979 “but has received the harshest punishment.”

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Jensen, 39, of Iowa City, was fatally shot in April 1979 at his parents’ farm in West Branch. When he arrived at the house, his parents, Ferdinand and Olga, had already been tied up and kept hostage for 12 hours by a hit man paid $50 to kill their son.

When Andrew Oglevie was tried for being the shooter — he was acquitted May 3, 1983 — details emerged about the plot in which Jeanne Jensen, Ady Jensen’s wife, Robert Kern and White, then married to Kern, planned to collect a $50,000 insurance policy.

Kern, an Iowa City insurance agent, sold the policy to Jeanne Jensen without her husband’s knowledge. Jensen testified she wanted to end a “confining” marriage, The Gazette reported May 4, 1983. Kern said he drove Oglevie to the Jensens’ house and gave him a shotgun, rope and rubber gloves.

White and Kern were convicted of first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory life prison sentence without the possibility of parole. Kern died of skin cancer in prison in 2016, after being denied commutation at least twice.

In exchange for her testimony against Kern and White, Jeanne Jensen was allowed to plead guilty to a charge of conspiracy to commit murder and she was sentenced to 10 years in prison and served four.

White’s role

White, who had just married Kern shortly before the murder and was pregnant with his child, went along with the plot and later agreed with Kern’s plan they would not testify against each other at trial, Djengue said.

“My mom was being manipulated and sexually abused and was afraid to testify for herself,” Djengue said.

White, answering questions through emails with her daughter, said Kern tried to run her over with a car when she was seven months’ pregnant.

White, who had four children in a previous marriage to Eugene Sorge, gave birth to her fifth child, Brandon Kern, right before she went to trial in October 1979, nursing him during breaks in the trial, she said. When she went to prison, her older children were raised by Sorge, while Brandon Kern went to Robert Kern’s family, Djengue said.

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“She was put in prison when I was 10,” Djengue said. “I remember the night vividly when she got arrested. I was up the street talking with friends. All of a sudden all these police cars, I just see swarms of cars going past me. I ran down the street. Sure enough, there were flashlights all over the house, the furniture being torn apart.”

White divorced Kern in 1981.

White’s older children have maintained close relationships with their mother over the four decades she’s been in prison, visiting the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women in Mitchellville, and, in recent years, using video calls to keep up with each other’s lives.

Djengue knows that although Ferdinand and Olga Jensen are dead, Ady Jensen’s family and friends still feel a loss.

“We know there are feelings there, but we also want justice,” Djengue said.

Honoring plea deal

By justice, Djengue is referring to a plea deal White struck with former Cedar County Attorney Lee Beine in 1982 to commute her life prison term if she testified against Oglevie. This agreement, allegedly approved by then-Gov. Robert Ray, is mentioned in Gazette articles in 1983 and 1984.

Miller’s letter also lists this plea deal as a reason Reynolds should allow White the possibility of parole.

“The Cedar County Attorney’s Office has maintained their position, for decades now, that Ms. White’s sentence be commuted to a term of thirty years. I now concur with that request and I note that it was our office that successfully upheld her conviction. I also note, as of course you know, she has already served forty-one years,” he wrote.

If released, White would live with her oldest daughter, Angelia, in Iowa. White wants to get her driver’s license again and spend time with her kids, 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Djengue’s push for her mother’s parole is a tribute to a woman she’s loved only from a distance for most of her life.

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“My mom is a good person and she deserves to get out,” she said. “She’s done everything she possibly can. She’s helped people in hospice. Donated her hair twice, made quilts. The positive parts of my mom are still there.”

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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