Will juvenile lifers get a second chance?
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.
- 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.
"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.
He was sent to the Mount View Youth Services Center, then offered a bed in a foster home and an emancipation program that would allow him to work and take classes to complete his high-school education. He was doing well in the program, he says, right up until the day one of his foster brothers brought home someone he'd met on the bus: Johnathan Jordan, who'd stayed in the same home years earlier and now was out on his own.
Jordan wore baggy clothes, sports gear, the whole gangster wardrobe. Johnson had never met anyone like him before. Jordan was back a week later, looking for a ride.
"He asked the foster mom to take him to get his check," Johnson explains, "but her car was broke down. The foster brother who'd seen him on the bus couldn't go because he was on court curfew for a stolen car. I remember the mom saying, 'Jeff could go with you.'"
At trial, prosecutors argued that the two youths had set out that evening with robbery in mind, staked out the Jaguar for ninety minutes or more, then attacked its owner together. Johnson says it wasn't that way at all; he didn't really know Jordan, and going with him to get his check was just something to do. After smoking dope on the top level, they'd been back in the garage only a few minutes when Jordan started going through the Jaguar. Johnson says he was walking away, headed for the bus stop, when Leonardelli entered the garage and Jordan attacked him.
"I didn't know he had a knife," he says. "I turned around, and it looked like they started wrestling."
He drew closer. The man Jordan had attacked was now slumped against a pillar, he says, blood spreading across his shirt. A witness who entered the garage at that point saw a figure kneeling over Leonardelli, and a second youth, whose description fits Johnson, several feet away; the second youth came toward him, saying the man was hurt and urging him to call the police. The witness, fearing he was about to be attacked as well, retreated.
Johnson couldn't believe what he was seeing. "I had never been around violence," he says. "I never felt that scared before, scared out of my butt, and I hope I never do again. My heart was racing. Everything was still moving around me, but my mind was moving real slow."
He continues: "John came up to me and said, 'Come on, we got to get the fuck out of here.' He still had the knife in his hand. He kept saying, 'Don't fucking say nothing.'"
He shakes his head. "I got no excuse," he says. "I acted as a coward."
The two were seen leaving the garage in the Jaguar; based on one witness's description, Jordan was at the wheel. The car was later found abandoned in another parking lot. That night, Jordan and Johnson sat glued to the television in Johnson's foster home, watching a news story about a vicious carjacking on Parker Road. The foster mom had never known either of them to pay attention to the news before.
Colorado Rockies vs. San Francisco Giants
TicketsMon., Sep. 4, 1:10pm
Colorado Rockies vs. San Diego Padres
TicketsFri., Sep. 15, 6:40pm
Colorado Rockies vs. Miami Marlins
TicketsMon., Sep. 25, 6:40pm
Colorado Rockies vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
TicketsFri., Sep. 29, 6:10pm
Denver Outlaws / Major League Lacrosse All Star Game
TicketsSat., Dec. 29, 6:00pm
Johnson says he "didn't feel like I had anyone that I could tell" about what happened. But while Jordan was telling his young accomplice to keep his mouth shut, he was doing plenty of yapping of his own — and often it's the first version of events to reach law enforcement that sets the course of a criminal investigation.
Ronald Polk, Jordan's roommate, would later tell police that hours after the murder, Jordan had confided, "I think I messed up real bad." After learning his paycheck wouldn't cover his rent, he'd told "the white guy he was with" that he needed more money. They had both attacked Leonardelli, Jordan had said: "The man was fighting back, so the white boy started stabbing the man all over."
Jordan's mother learned of similar statements and called police. Picked up at a motel and brought in for questioning, Jordan started out telling Aurora police detective Dan Dailey that he'd just been "passing through" the garage with a white guy named "Tom" who used to work with him at Denny's. After a few minutes of cat-and-mouse questioning, Dailey informed Jordan that he'd already talked to Polk and knew about the gold bracelet he'd pawned.
"You're in the position right now that if you're ever going to be able to help yourself, it's right now," the detective told him. "You're in the cat seat."
Jordan began to buckle. "Tom" had done the stabbing, he insisted, not him. Tom had taken the man's Rolex and diamond ring. They had found a steak knife in the car, but Jordan hadn't used it. "Jeff handed it to me," he said, but he'd left it on top of a light fixture in the garage.
Dailey jumped on the mistake. "Jeff or Tom?" he asked.
"Huh?" Jordan responded.
"Jeff or Tom?" Dailey asked again.
"Jeff," Jordan admitted. He laughed. "I don't want to be no snitch, you know. I ended up slippin'..."
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.
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.
Those rulings will probably be appealed, giving the Colorado Supreme Court an opportunity to weigh in. Some of the LWOP boys may already be pushing middle age in prison, but it's still early in the long court process of deciding their ultimate fates.
Juveniles tend to have a more difficult time adjusting to prison life than older offenders. Johnson's initiation began in the Arapahoe County jail, when two large cellmates told him they would "toughen him up" for the journey ahead. They proceeded to punch and kick him repeatedly.
In prison he found more compassionate mentors, savvy inmates who schooled him in doing his own time and avoiding predators, gangs and debt. One was Kurt Pichon, who now works in outreach programs with at-risk youth in Colorado Springs and runs a company called XKon Research, which assists prisoners in transitioning back to society.
"Jeff was a doe in the headlights," Pichon recalls. But Johnson's youth and honesty also made him a highly effective speaker, in a scared-straight type of program called SHAPEUP that sought to keep young offenders out of prison. "He was one of the best we ever had," Pichon adds, "and he saved a lot of kids' lives."
Gary Flakes, who went into the prison system at sixteen and served twelve years for criminally negligent homicide, says that Johnson matured into a respected inmate who worked behind the scenes to defuse conflicts. "He's always been a standup individual, no matter if you're white or black," says Flakes — who, like Pichon, now counsels at-risk youth in Colorado Springs. "I have seen him working to prevent full-out gang fights in prison. This is something I know personally. The majority of those who went in as kids, you will find they are totally different individuals now. Like JJ."
Johnson admits he's had his share of "wrecks" in prison. He'd been in three years when he began to feel the full weight of the endless time stretching ahead of him. He became depressed and suicidal. Another inmate offered him a little heroin to take the edge off, and he was soon a regular user. He lost his visiting privileges and took some time getting clean.
In 2001 a new cellie of Johnson's was involved in a fatal attack on another prisoner at the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility. Johnson was never charged in the case, but he was shipped to the Colorado State Penitentiary during the subsequent investigation and spent the next four years in solitary confinement, protesting his innocence.
In recent years, Johnson has managed to turn things around. Evaluations done when he first entered the prison system indicated he was reading at a third-grade level. He has since completed his GED, taught himself Spanish, and devoured books on religion, investing and self-help topics. Improving his reading and writing skills was "a huge confidence-builder," he says.
"I used to pay attention to what was going on around me and let it affect me," he explains. "But I can't control none of this. Prison is a plethora of depression. If you get consumed in it, it's going to eat you up. So I try to live from the inside. That way I don't get caught up in the ignorance around me. I read a lot."
One piece of reading that has stayed with him arrived in an envelope mailed from another prison six years ago. Inside was a handwritten two-page letter, with a name at the end Johnson recognized from long ago. It began:
Hey man, hope this letter finds you in good spirits and health. Considering the situations I know you probably weren't expecting to hear from me. It's been a long time. But you were going through somethings and me as well. And now I am writing. You probably wondering why. Cause I want to clear my conscious. I know you could care less. But you might be interested in what I have to say.
First off, I want to apologize to you, for ruining your life. If you hadn't had met me at that particular time in my life, who knows...
According to the letter, Johnathan Jordan had found God, and I'm trying to live right by HIM. As Jordan explained it, living right meant acknowledging in writing that he was the person who had committed "this senseless murder" for which they were now both serving time.
I don't know if this is to late or anything for you. I can't give back the years you lost cause of me. I don't know what the future holds for you. Hopefully not in here. But I'm here to confess to you and to whoever else will listen on your behalf. You and me know I did it. You had nothing to do with it. I'm so sorry...
I don't even know what made me take it that far. He wouldn't give me the wallet. I didn't have intentions to kill anybody. Maybe just scare him. I did intend on jacking somebody though. I should have at least told you that part. I don't know what I was thinking through any of this.
Jordan didn't respond to a request for an interview or acknowledge that he wrote the letter, which is now posted on Johnson's website, along with other documents pertaining to the case. Johnson says his co-defendant has been reluctant to repeat his comments in any public forum and may be having second thoughts about how a confession might affect his own hopes of clemency some day.
Sitting behind glass in a small visitation booth at the Centennial Correctional Facility, Johnson studies the walls hemming him in and picks his words carefully.
"I'm not trying to play the victim," he says. "There ain't but one victim in this case. But, honestly, a part of me has always felt that the man killed me, too. My life is over. This is where I'll die. That's hard to accept. For a lot of years, I was just angry. I hated him. But I don't want to sit here and be angry all day long."
Johnson doesn't have an attorney at present, and he isn't sure how or when his case might come up for resentencing. He hopes he'll have a chance to present evidence in his cause some day — the letter from Jordan, his accomplishments of the past few years, some indication of the clueless adolescent he was and the person he's become — rather than have some judge who's never met him rubber-stamp a new sentence of forty years to life. He shudders at the idea that his parents and just about everyone else who ever meant something to him on the outside could be long gone before he gets out.
Like the other lifers who came to prison before they ever got a chance to be men, there's an oddly stunted boyishness about him. He talks about never having seen the Internet and not having any role models in prison for the man he would like to be.
"At seventeen, you don't know nothing about being a man," he says. "You think you know, but you're an idiot. We're all still in that frame of mind, to some degree."
His hands press against each other as if in prayer. "Whether my sentence changes or not," he says, "I'd still like to be in a situation where I can give a voice to the people convicted as juveniles. We might die in here, but it doesn't mean we have to fall victim to this lifestyle.
"A better life is always a choice away. I believe that."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.