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Will juvenile lifers get a second chance?

See also: Johnathan Jordan letter clears co-defendant in murder -- but will anyone believe it?

Will juvenile lifers get a second chance?
Ellen Weinstein

The day his old life ended, Jeff Johnson was jonesing for a cigarette. He was tall and gangly, a bit of a rebel and a goof. He liked to shoot pool and flirt with the girls at Scores, a teen dive in Aurora, and a coffin nail dangling from his lip helped complete his bad-boy image.

But that particular day — March 29, 1994 — Johnson ran out of smokes. His companion of the moment, Johnathan Jordan, had some weed but no cigarettes. Looking back on it, that could have been a sign, an opening, an excuse for Johnson to split and get far, far away from the other JJ. Sorry, man, I can't hang with you, I got to go find some nicotine...

A chance he didn't take.

See also:
- Johnathan Jordan letter clears co-defendant in murder -- but will anyone believe it?
- Juvenile lifers: Who are the 51 in Colorado?
- Erik Jensen, juvenile lifer, hangs onto hope "now more than ever"

Aside from sharing the same initials, Johnson and Jordan had little in common. Johnson was seventeen years old, a white kid from the suburbs with the thinnest of juvenile records. Jordan was nearly twenty, black, with reputed gang connections and an outstanding warrant for selling crack to a police informant. They had barely met before that day, when Jordan stopped by his old foster home off Colfax, a place where Johnson now lived, looking for some company. Jordan was on his way to pick up his paycheck, and Johnson, who had nothing better to do, agreed to go along.

The two grabbed a bus to Jordan's workplace, a telemarketing firm on Parker Road. But the check, Jordan soon discovered, was for eighty-five bucks — not nearly enough, he complained. Instead of heading back to the bus stop, he steered Johnson into a parking garage.

"He told me he was short on his rent and his roommate was going to kick him out," Johnson recalls. "So he wanted to go through the cars and steal stuff."

Johnson knew he didn't need that kind of trouble. The social-services people had told him to keep his nose clean — no police contact or he'd be shipped off to a Job Corps program in Utah. While Jordan prowled the garage, Johnson walked to a nearby Cub Foods to buy cigarettes. They wouldn't sell him a pack because he wasn't eighteen. So he went back to the garage, back to Jordan and the trouble ahead, for reasons that he still can't fully explain decades later.

"I wanted to go back to Scores to play pool," he says. "He said he was gonna have someone pick us up and he was gonna give me ten bucks, or something like that, to hang out with him for a little bit."

The two went up to the top level of the garage and smoked a joint. When they came back down, Jordan started rummaging through a white 1993 Jaguar someone had left unlocked. The rig had tinted windows, a car phone, an ivory leather interior; the owner had to be loaded, Jordan figured. He might be someone worth waiting around for.

There are different versions of what happened next, but the outcome is beyond dispute. Around eight o'clock that evening, John Leonardelli, a 55-year-old insurance broker, was found badly injured in the garage. He told the people who came to his aid that he'd been attacked by two youths — one black, one white — who had robbed him and taken his Jaguar. He died at University Hospital that night of multiple stab wounds to his lungs, heart and throat.

Leonardelli's Rolex watch, diamond ring and gold bracelet were missing; his wallet, containing more than $1,200 in cash, had been left behind. Jordan pawned the bracelet the next day for $50. Police arrested him at an Aurora motel and picked up Johnson a few hours later.

Too young to buy cigarettes, Johnson was still considered old enough to be tried as an adult in the case. He was convicted of first-degree murder and received a mandatory sentence of life without parole. Jordan pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, armed robbery and car theft and received a 100-year prison sentence.

Johnson is one of 51 inmates in the Colorado Department of Corrections who are serving sentences of life without parole (LWOP) for offenses committed when they were juveniles. He was among the first wave of juvie lifers to hit the system after outrage over escalating gang-related shootings in the early 1990s — notably, Denver's so-called Summer of Violence in 1993 — prompted state lawmakers to pass legislation making it easier for prosecutors to charge juveniles as adults. They're a tribe within a tribe in the DOC, aging cons whose adolescent crimes have been deemed so unredeemable that they are condemned to die behind bars, with no hope of release.

But hope is hard to kill, even among convicted killers. Four months ago the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a long-anticipated opinion in two LWOP cases, declaring that a mandatory sentence of life without parole for juveniles violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The 5-4 decision didn't preclude the possibility that a teen killer could receive a life sentence, but it required that the penalty be based on individual circumstances; a one-size-fits-all sentencing scheme doesn't take into account an offender's age and other mitigating factors.

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7 comments
saraandzoey
saraandzoey

John Leonardelli was my grandfather, not sure why but I had never heard any of this till now. I googled my grandfathers name and this came up. Does anyone know any current updates?

lrussel5
lrussel5

I've read many of the filed court pleadings and have to say that all of this is mind boggling.Where was the physical evidence in this case? So many gaps in what should have happened and what didn't happen, but yet he gets LWOP. His public defender really dropped the ball.  Jeff didn't understand what was going on and did not have another adult or advocate to help him.

I"m not saying I believe he is innocent of all charges, but I do believe that he has served his time. At one point he was in solitary confinement for 4 years - that is inhumane!  As someone before me commented, if an animal was treated that way the entire society would be picketing and up in arms.

As to Jeff's credit, I have to say that I commend him on using his time incarcerated to create a life for himself, educate himself, and to keep a positive attitude. Many facing his future would simply give up, whereas he has learned to read, learned another language, educated himself in many subjects, and one of the best - to speak with youth and to share his story to help others not to do the same as he has.

He has gained maturity and worked on rehabilitating himself, even without any thoughts of being released into society. It seems that during that time period, the courts were attempting to crack down on gang violence resulting in throwing away youths that didn't deserve that harsh of punishment.

klausa50
klausa50

I believe that the Department of Corrections must make every decision based on issues of safety. Managing  and controlling the population is paramount. 

Providing a certain quality of life, offering opportunities for education and rehabilitation are not top priorities. However, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People," and "7 Habits on the Inside" are examples of programs that have successfully shifted many offenders from criminogenic thinking towards understanding how to be a responsible member of society if/when released. 

We need more programs.The offenders, especially the younger ones, have worked diligently to catch up and learn, obtain degrees, read extensively and improve themselves. Many have accepted responsibility for their past poor choices and horrific acts, but still sense that the world has thrown them away and forgotten them. The public needs to pay attention, because most of the prison population WILL eventually be released. Investing in education rather than more punitive measures is an investment that helps both victims and perpetrators of crime-

by offering all humans hope and dignity.

Randy144
Randy144

Alan, 

Again, another amazing thought-inspiring story.

I cannot help but notice that, throughout the story, and in any comment from any person in the prison system, there is no reference to rehabilitation. I was taught, as were many other citizens, that the purpose of prison was rehabilitation.  I would imagine that most citizens use that reference as part of their decision making process when they are on a jury, or when they hear about crimes and make mental decisions about how the offender should be punished.

If rehabilitation is not valid anymore, and all that a criminal gets is prison time, solitary confinement, prison brutality and a life without hope, we should all be changing our understanding of the prison system and of our Justice System.

Without rehabilitation, prison is nothing but cruelty and pain. Without a chance for rehabilitation prison is the pure representation of cruel punishment.

Who can imagine spending time in solitary confinement for 2 or 3 years. We would not subject a vicious dog to such a punishment. Imagine the Animal Activists reaction to the statement: "Your Pit Bull is going to be put in a tiny cage with no windows for 3 years, and abused." It would be on every News Station in the Country. Yet we treat children like this and there is no outrage, or even public criticism.

Your article should make people think about the cruelty of the current system, the lack of hope, the lack of  humanity, and the lack of Justice. 

It is certainly time to revisit and modify the states Felony Murder Statute, and find a way to handle criminals and possible innocent children with more humanity.

At this point it looks like the only person who really cares is you.

Thanks Alan.

Keep up the good work.

Randy Brown

Juan_Leg
Juan_Leg

There NEEDS to be a hearing to determine if a juvenile

will be tried as an adult. Texas calls such hearing a

'Waiver of Jurisdiction', and quite often can last a week or more .

Mad, insane D.A.'s as Chambers has demonstrated to be

 THROUGHOUT her term, have charged juveniles as adults w/o concern. 

This leaves enough cases warranting a review, WAY more than necessary, to tie up the courts at ALL levels 

for many years to come . Johnson, IF he gets some kind of 'play', won't occur til he is into his 50's I'm sure.

UNLESS they all get Patrick Sullivan's judge ! He appears to 'Show a lot of Love' to those who come before him based on Sullivan's slap on the wrist ....

patricia.calhoun
patricia.calhoun moderator editor

@klausa50  

I'd like to publish this in our print edition, ideally with your full name. if that's okay, let me know at patricia.calhoun@westword.com

alanprend
alanprend

@Randy144 Thanks, Randy and Juan Leg, for your comments. This is not a popular issue, and I wouldn't want to minimize the crimes these men committed as adolescents. But as Jeff Johnson's story shows, the situation is often more complicated than it appears, partly because of the juveniles' immaturity and naivete about the justice system. The decision to take away a life, whether by execution or a sentence of life in prison without parole, isn't something we should take lightly -- and I agree that the equation should include other factors than simply a public outcry for punishment.

 
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