Juvenile lifers: Who are the 51 in Colorado?
This week's feature, "The Old Boys," explores an emerging quandary in the criminal justice arena. Colorado has 51 state inmates serving life without parole for crimes committed when they were under eighteen -- and thanks to a recent Supreme Court decision declaring such sentences unconstitutional, this special population may have to be re-sentenced, either individually or en masse. But who are these people, and what terrible crimes led to their life sentences?
The answers may surprise you. Jeff Johnson, whose story of doing life without parole (LWOP) for a 1994 murder in Aurora is the focus of the feature, isn't the most typical case. For one thing, he's white. According to data compiled by the Colorado Legislative Council, only one out of three of the state's juvie lifers are Caucasian; another third are African-American -- far out of proportion to the state's demographics -- and the rest are Hispanic, Asian, or American Indian.
Many of the lifers are doing time for first-degree murder. But more than a fourth of them were convicted of felony murder -- meaning they weren't found guilty of committing the homicide themselves but were involved in some other crime that resulted in a death. (Johnson has a written confession, reputedly signed by his his older co-defendant, Johnathan Jordan, stating that Jordan did the fatal stabbing in their case all by himself.)
In 2006, lawmakers did away with the mandatory LWOP sentence for juveniles convicted of homicide; the sentence is now forty years to life. Consequently, the LWOP gang consists of offenders of a particular age group. All were born between 1976 and 1989. Most of their offenses were committed in the 1990s. Fully a third of them were convicted in Denver courts, but Adams, Arapahoe and El Paso County prosecutors also frequently took violent juvenile offenders to adult court.
For more on how the numbers break out, see the 2009 spreadsheet the state prepared on the next page. A caution: Some data is missing, and the sheet omits three cases: Jeff Johnson (born 1976, offense committed in 1994), Giselle Gutierrez (born 1979, offense committed 1997) and Alberto Valles (born 1987, offense committed 2005).
More from our Prison Life archive: "Johnathan Jordan letter clears co-defendant in murder -- but will anyone believe it?"
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