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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?

Dailey tried to assure him that he'd done the right thing by naming his partner. "He's in even more serious trouble than you are," he said.

"I guess," Jordan said.

"My God, he took a human life," Dailey said.

"He's the one that shanked him," Jordan agreed. "Wasn't intended to, and that's about it."

Johnson was arrested a few hours later, as he left the foster home on a cigarette run. The police soon had a series of statements supporting Jordan's version of the crime — many of them obtained from sources friendly to Jordan, Johnson says. A visitor to the foster home claimed that, before the pair headed off on the bus, she overheard Johnson asking Jordan, "Do you want to do a jack?" — an offer that contradicts Jordan's own account of deciding to commit robbery only after learning that his paycheck wouldn't cover his rent.

Johnson's roommate said he saw him place a kitchen knife in his jacket before heading out. More damaging still was the testimony of Danny Curtis, another resident of the foster home, who claimed that Johnson asked him if he wanted to "do a jack" with them. Curtis also said that Johnson later admitted to stabbing the victim and asked him to keep the watch and ring for him, which Curtis hid under a bush outside a Black-eyed Pea.

Johnson denies talking about doing a jack, admitting the stabbing or handing Curtis anything. At trial, Curtis admitted that he'd told different versions of the story to different people. The watch, ring and murder weapon were never found — although, oddly enough, the steak knife Jordan claimed to have lifted from the Jaguar was.

His parents hired a private attorney to defend Johnson but soon ran out of resources. His court-appointed lawyer, Jeffrey Pagliuca, seemed confident that Johnson could prevail at trial. After all, Jordan had the admitted motive for the robbery: the puny paycheck and his pending eviction. It was Jordan who pawned the bracelet. And the physical evidence strongly indicated that Jordan had done all the stabbing. It was Jordan who had the victim's blood on his clothing — so much blood that he threw away his jacket, only to be nailed with stains found on other gear. No blood that could be traced to the victim was found on Johnson's clothes, just some stains that were consistent with his own blood type. (Prosecutors theorized that he might have washed his clothes that night, but that doesn't explain how he could have magically washed away all traces of the victim's blood while leaving his own.)

"If he had blood on him, I don't think there'd be any reason to give him any mercy," John Johnson says of his son. "But I know Jeff would not stab anybody. That's just not in his makeup."

Jeff Johnson says that at one point he was offered a plea bargain for a twenty-year sentence, with the possibility of placement in the Youthful Offender System, a "second last chance" program for violent teens that would cut his time drastically if he successfully completed it. "I told Pagliuca I wanted to take the deal," he says. "He said there was no evidence against me and we could beat this at trial."

Yet when the case did go to trial, Johnson had few witnesses on his side — and never testified himself. Pagliuca talked him out of taking the stand, he says: "He told me if I was to testify and I got found guilty, I could be labeled a rat and killed in prison. I wasn't going to do it. I'd already had issues in the county jail."

Pagliuca is currently out of the country and couldn't be reached for comment. Yet it's doubtful that Johnson could have avoided prison even if he'd managed to convince the jury that he wasn't the one who did the stabbing. In closing arguments, Arapahoe County prosecutor Steve Lee explained that, under the state's felony-murder statute, his office didn't have to prove Johnson actually killed anyone. It merely had to be established that he was part of the robbery scheme. He was with Jordan during the commission of the crime and was seen fleeing with him, and that made him just as guilty of felony murder as any other participant.

The jury found Johnson guilty on eight counts, each of which resulted in a stiff sentence. Thirty-two years for aggravated robbery. Thirty-two years for motor vehicle theft. Forty-eight years for conspiracy.

But the only charge that mattered came with no specific number attached to it, no time that could be measured and managed. Guilty, first-degree murder, mandatory sentence of life without parole.

Jordan didn't go to trial. He copped a plea to second-degree murder and armed robbery that netted him a hundred years. With time off for good behavior, he'll be eligible for parole in 2038, at the age of 63.

***********

The battle over sending juveniles who commit violent crimes to adult prisons, sometimes for life, is a contentious one. The opposing sides don't even agree how many juvenile LWOP cases there are in American prisons. Studies done by reformers estimate the number of juvie lifers at 2,500 or more, but victim-rights groups say the actual count is about half that, around 1,300.

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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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