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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?

"Under these schemes, every juvenile will receive the same sentence as every other — the seventeen-year-old and the fourteen-year-old, the shooter and the accomplice, the child from a stable household and the child from a chaotic and abusive one," Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the majority opinion. "And still worse, each juvenile...will receive the same sentence as the vast majority of adults committing similar homicide offenses — but really...a greater sentence than those adults will serve."

The decision has generated uproar and confusion in the 29 states that have mandatory LWOP sentences, including Colorado. Groups that advocate for juvenile lifers, including the Denver-based Pendulum Foundation, have hailed the ruling as a turning point in their long battle to reform the system. Victim-rights organizations have expressed alarm at the prospect of families of homicide victims having to endure resentencing hearings, in some cases decades after the tragedies that altered their lives. Some state governors have tried to head off controversy with preemptive action; in Iowa, Terry Branstad recently commuted all juvenile LWOP sentences to sixty years, while California's Jerry Brown signed a bill allowing that state's juvie lifers to petition for judicial reviews that could cut their sentences to 25 years.

Colorado's response has been more enigmatic. At this point, it's not clear if the Supreme Court's ruling applies to all of the state's juvie lifers, or what process will be involved in seeking a new sentence. In recent weeks, the Colorado Court of Appeals has taken up three cases challenging LWOP sentences — and issued conflicting opinions. But some justices seem to be leaning toward the notion that each case must be reviewed on its individual terms, and Jeff Johnson sees that as good news. More than anything, he says, he wants an opportunity to explain in a courtroom what actually happened in that parking garage eighteen years ago — something he says he was dissuaded from doing at his trial.

Johnson is 35 now. He's already spent more of his life behind bars than in the outside world. He's had ample time to consider the hard lessons of growing up in prison; to go over and over the key pieces of evidence that, he insists, prove that it was Jordan and not him that robbed and murdered Leonardelli, including a written confession he received from Jordan years later; and to ponder the cosmic imbalance of being sentenced to die in prison while his older co-defendant has a chance of being paroled some day.

"I believe I should do time," he says. "I was there. I didn't stop it. I'm guilty of that. However, I disagree with having more time than my co-defendant does."

Asked how much time he thinks he deserves — twenty years? Forty? — he shakes his head. "I don't know how to answer that," he says. "How do you put that in years, someone's life being lost? No matter what, it's never going to be okay. But how can you put someone away forever just for being there when you're more lenient with someone who did the killing?"

***********

According to a biographical sketch Johnson wrote for Forgotten Justice, a website devoted to his case, he grew up "seeking attention I thought I needed." He was a poor student — restless, hyper, disruptive, smarting off occasionally, but not a bully.

"It seemed like I couldn't focus," he says now. "Maybe I wasn't interested."

His parents divorced before Johnson reached the first grade. He spent most of his time with his mother in a modest home in Aurora, visiting his father on weekends twice a month. In the third grade he was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, put on Ritalin and shifted into a special-education program. By high school he could still barely read, a secret he kept from just about everybody. "He was not a bad kid, but he was defiant," says his father, John Johnson. "When his mother had trouble with him, she'd bring him to me."

A former drill instructor and Vietnam combat veteran, the elder Johnson made an attempt to impose some discipline on Jeff, taking him in for his freshman year at Cherry Creek High School. The arrangement lasted only a few weeks before Jeff moved back to his mother's house. He says he was trying to keep both parents at a distance: "When I felt they were getting too close, I'd pick an argument with one and move in with the other."

In high school, Johnson became buddies with an older student who seemed to have a teenager's dream living arrangement: no curfew, no rules. His friend introduced him to marijuana, drinking parties, ditching class. The guy's dad didn't even know Jeff was crashing at his friend's house for months. The relationship created more friction with his parents and ultimately led to his placement in foster care.

At one point Johnson signed on with a shady operator who recruited cash-poor teens to hawk door-to-door magazine subscriptions. The police busted the operation a few days later, detaining Johnson and a carload of runaway kids; the girls in the crew, it was alleged, were peddling more than magazines to get by. Neither of his parents came to claim Johnson after he was processed. "I think they'd had enough," he says.

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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 editortopcommenter

@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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