Will juvenile lifers get a second chance?

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

The greater argument concerns the conditions that merit shifting an adolescent defendant out of the juvenile system, into the world of adult punishment. Some crimes are so heinous — and strike such a deep public nerve — that they seem to cry out for adult consequences, such as the recent abduction and slaying of ten-year-old Jessica Ridgeway in Jefferson County, a case in which seventeen-year-old Austin Sigg faces first-degree murder charges as an adult. But critics of the system say that media-flamed fears of baby-faced killers have made it too easy to prosecute in adult court juveniles of widely varying culpability and maturity, with disastrous results.

Jeff Johnson's case is not all that different from many other juvenile LWOP convictions; in a significant number of them, the juvenile defendant ends up with a harsher sentence than an older co-defendant who may be more culpable. According to figures compiled by the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition, one-fourth of the Colorado LWOP cases involve convictions obtained under the felony-murder statute, rather than a first-degree murder conviction. In other words, the jury didn't find an intent to commit murder, but did find that the defendant had a supporting role in some crime that resulted in homicide.

Juveniles are also less sophisticated about the justice system and more susceptible to peer pressure — including the fear of being labeled a snitch — than adult defendants, and that can be a crucial factor in ending up with a life sentence.

"At least a handful of the juveniles serving life were offered the Youthful Offender System or minor sentences, but it was conditioned on testifying against co-defendants," notes Kim Dvorchak, the executive director of the CJDC. "That's a big issue. Also, it can be difficult for attorneys to represent adolescents if they don't have a lot of experience with them. Particularly in the 1990s, attorneys weren't handling these cases any differently than they would have an adult case."

Over the past decade, defense attorneys have cited emerging brain research to bolster arguments that adolescents need to be treated differently from adults in the justice system. The research confirmed what parents already knew: that teens are inclined to thrill-seeking behavior, lack impulse control, are easily swayed by peers and often fail to recognize alternative courses of action when things go bad. The argument began to find traction with appeals courts, and soon the Supreme Court got involved, chipping away at the adult-time-for-adult-crime logic.

In 2005 the Court ruled that defendants under the age of eighteen couldn't be executed, citing juveniles' immaturity and still-developing personalities. In 2010 the Court threw out life without parole for juveniles for crimes other than homicide. And this summer, in a ruling known as Miller v. Alabama, the justices rejected mandatory life without parole in juvenile homicide cases, too.

Colorado's mandatory LWOP sentence for juveniles convicted of homicide amounts to "a cookie-cutter approach to sentencing these defendants," says Doug Wilson, who heads the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender. "The guy who went down on felony murder for just being in the car was treated the same as the guy who pulled the trigger. The idea [of the Miller decision] is that you need to do an individual sentencing package."

But many state officials have taken the position that the Supreme Court decision should be narrowly applied and doesn't require individual resentencing hearings, a process that victim-rights groups also regard with dread. "There are no words that can describe the emotional difficulty that victim families go through at the thought of reopening these cases," says Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, president of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers. "The word that comes closest is 'torture.' One victim described it to me as like having heart surgery without any anesthetic."

Bishop-Jenkins says her group, which claims more than a hundred victim family members in 22 states, was launched largely in response to what she describes as "offender advocate propaganda" that tends to present juvie lifers as victims rather than dangerous criminals. She praises Iowa governor Branstad's effort to head off resentencing hearings by commuting the sentences of that state's juvenile lifers to sixty-year terms.

"He saved the state a load of money, and the victim families a ton of agony," she says. "There's a false hope here that's been generated by the offender advocates. Assuming they are guilty of horrific crimes, which most of them are, then even if they go through a resentencing process, almost all of them are going to be serving life in prison anyway. Some people will probably obtain some sentencing relief who deserve it, but very few sentences are going to be changed to any significant degree. All of them have already been through multiple levels of due process."

Other observers, though, expect the Iowa commutations to face legal challenges, because the process doesn't take into account the individual circumstances of each defendant. "Our position is that every one of the Colorado LWOPs should get a new sentencing hearing," says Dvorchak. "Obviously, the court is going to look at the nature of the crime and the participant's involvement."

Yet the Colorado Court of Appeals has so far sent out mixed signals about how it's going to interpret the Miller decision. Dvorchak recently won an appeal on behalf of Michael Tate — who, at sixteen, was involved in a break-in at a friend's house that ended in homicide and a felony-murder conviction ["Killer Instinct," September 20, 2007]. A three-judge panel agreed that Tate's LWOP sentence is unconstitutional and ordered that he should be resentenced by the trial court, without specifying what that sentence might be. But the Tate decision is unpublished, which means it has no value as precedent. In a published opinion, another appeals panel ruled that a different LWOP defendant should be resentenced to forty years, with the possibility of parole to follow. That's consistent with the current sentencing scheme; in 2006, state lawmakers changed the maximum sentence for juveniles to forty-to-life. A third recent decision also indicates that an LWOP sentence can "roll over" to forty calendar years without a new hearing.

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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?


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.


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.



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


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 moderator editortopcommenter


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


@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.