It seems at first glance the most ideal of situations: a strikingly handsome young man living in the hilly, tree-shaded serenity of a Conejo Valley suburb under the best possible circumstances.
True, there had been a divorce in the family, but Brandon Hein was deeply loved by both parents and stepparents in an arrangement clearly devoid of rancor or bitterness.
Photographs of the boy growing up glow with contentment and good health, alone and with his parents, as a tot and as a teenager, the very epitome of an all-American kid.
Then why do we see this all-American kid, this paragon of normality, in a videotape being led from a courtroom in chains? Why is this sweet-smiling boy in the photographs in prison for the rest of his life for murder?
The questions dwell on two levels.
The answer to the first is that Brandon and three others were convicted in the 1995 Agoura Hills killing of a policeman's son while attempting to rob his friend of a stash of marijuana.
The answer to the second is that even though Brandon did not wield the knife that killed Jimmy Farris, he was there, and therefore open to a charge of first-degree murder under California's felony murder rule.
For that, at age 19, Brandon Hein was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.
But the story doesn't end there.
From the beginning, cries were heard that the sentence was disproportionate to the crime. Of the four convicted in the case, only one, Jason Holland, admitted stabbing Farris. To the others it was a weaponless fistfight.
The boys said they'd gone to a backyard "fort" in Agoura Hills to buy marijuana. The prosecution charged they'd gone there to rob Farris and another boy, thereby invoking the felony murder rule.
Rooted in British common law and adopted here in the 1800s, the rule decrees that any murder occurring in the commission of certain serious crimes is murder in the first degree. Robbery is one of those crimes. The punishment is 25 years to life. With special circumstances it's life without parole.
All but one of the boys, a minor, were given the maximum sentence by a judge who called them remorseless, arrogant and dangerous.
The severity of the sentences created shock waves as powerful as the crime itself. Led by magazine articles, a documentary film and the relentless efforts of Brandon's father, Eugene Hein, a fight for justice was immediately begun and continues four years after a cell door slammed shut on his son.
At stake is not so much freedom for Brandon, whose appeal is being conducted on another level, but modification of the felony murder rule. The Heins want it changed. And so does state Sen. Tom Hayden.
Pursued by Brandon's father, Hayden has introduced a bill that would require a court to consider whether a first-degree sentence was "proportionate" to the crime and to a defendant's participation in it.
Hayden, a self-described pursuer of lost causes, felt so strongly about the unfairness of the sentence imposed on Brandon that he visited the youth at Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City. His conclusion: The law is unfair, and Brandon doesn't belong in prison for life.
He's right. A kind of darkness winds through the lives of the boys in the sunny suburbs. The use of drugs and hard liquor revealed in court testimony was a part of their growing-up years. Glowing smiles masked troubled hearts.
But Hayden asks, "Why should people unequally involved in a crime be equally punished? Brandon is on solid ground asking if everyone [involved in the murder] is equally guilty."
This is not to ignore the grief of Jimmy Farris' parents, Hayden said. "I told Brandon that he was in an unjustifiable situation, but the young man you attacked is gone forever. You're alive.' "
Tragedy cloaks the case like a funeral shroud. But the inflexible nature of the felony rule has created an injustice of its own. Hayden is correct when he says that this isn't a situation of saving "white boys in the suburbs" but of modifying a law that is essentially unfair.
Brandon Hein's radiant smile may conceal the sins of suburbia, but his sins, at least, aren't damning enough to cost him the rest of his life.
Al Martinez's column appears Tuesdays and Fridays. He can be reached online at email@example.com.