Jeff Johnson's Release: Life After Life Without Parole

After serving 24 years in prison for a murder committed by his co-defendant, Jeff Johnson  is starting a new chapter in his life.
After serving 24 years in prison for a murder committed by his co-defendant, Jeff Johnson is starting a new chapter in his life. Alan Prendergast
Sitting at Cake Crumbs in Park Hill on a crisp November day, Jeff Johnson takes a swig of his first real cappuccino. It's much more potent than the ersatz cappuccino offered in the Colorado Department of Corrections, a flavored powder mixed with hot water. Johnson's eyes widen.

"Whooeee," he says. "That has quite a kick to it, doesn't it?"

At 41 years old, Johnson is discovering all sorts of new wonders he's never experienced before, like Rip Van Winkle waking from a long slumber. Sentenced to life in prison without parole for a crime that occurred when he was seventeen, then re-sentenced three weeks ago and released, he's trying to negotiate a world that didn't exist back in 1994 — a world of smartphones and smart cars, Google and Facebook, YouTube and #MeToo.

"It's nuts, man," he says. "A quarter of a century changes everything. What I've noticed the most is how much everything costs and how nobody really talks to each other anymore. They're all busy computer typing."

Johnson was one of fifty Colorado inmates who were 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 prison system in the early 1990s, after state lawmakers made it easier for prosecutors to charge juveniles as adults. In 2006 the law was changed again, to allow those under eighteen convicted of serious crimes the possibility of parole after forty years, but the new law didn't apply to those already doing time, who were expected to grow old behind bars with no hope of release.

In 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a mandatory LWOP sentence for juveniles is unconstitutional. The decision forced many states to come up with a process for resentencing their juvie lifers, while taking into account individual mitigating circumstances; in Colorado, the wrangling over how to proceed dragged on for six years, producing some convoluted legislation and conflicting court decisions. Ultimately, it led to a two-track system, in which those convicted of first-degree murder are granted the possibility of parole after forty years, while those serving time for felony murder — meaning they may have been an accomplice or a lookout rather than the actual killer — could end up with a sentence in the range of thirty to fifty years, depending on circumstances.

Johnson's case, detailed in a Westword cover story in 2012, is an example of how the LWOP crusade ended up imposing life sentences on teens who were, in some instances, less culpable than adult co-defendants who ended up with less time. He was arrested after John Leonardelli, a 55-year-old insurance broker, was fatally stabbed during a robbery in an Aurora parking garage. Johnson has never denied being at the crime scene; he says he deserved to go to prison for failing to stop the robbery. But he's always maintained that Johnathan Jordan, a 22-year-old he'd recently started hanging around with, was the one who attacked Leonardelli, while Johnson watched in disbelief. 

Other evidence backed up Johnson's account. It was Jordan who had the victim's blood on his clothing and who pawned a bracelet taken in the robbery. Yet Johnson ended up getting life while Jordan copped a plea to second-degree murder.

After a rough start in prison, Johnson completed his GED, waded through stacks of books, and became involved in developing numerous programs that help other inmates prepare for release and that reach out to at-risk young people to try to keep them from a similar fate. His resentencing hearing featured testimonials from prison administrators about his model behavior. There was also a video of his co-defendant reading aloud a letter in which he cleared Johnson of any involvement in Leonardelli's death. A grandson of the victim also spoke, saying he supported Johnson's release.

The prosecution agreed to vacate Johnson's first-degree murder conviction, making him eligible for the reduced sentence accorded to those convicted of felony murder. Arapahoe County District Judge Andrew Baum gave him the minimum thirty years; with credit for good time, that made Johnson eligible for immediate release. In short order he had his parole paperwork, a new cell phone and a marriage certificate, having tied the knot at the Denver City and County building with his fiancée, Jenny. (The two first met when she was a mental health counselor in DOC, but didn't become friends until after she'd left that position.) 

click to enlarge Jeff and Jenny Johnson got married shortly after Jeff's release. - COURTESY OF JEFF JOHNSON
Jeff and Jenny Johnson got married shortly after Jeff's release.
Courtesy of Jeff Johnson
Johnson is now doing plenty of "computer typing" of his own — including texts and emails. He recently figured out how to set up voicemail on his phone ("Where's the answering machine in this thing?") and found out he had fourteen unanswered messages. He's still getting used to cars whizzing by when he tries to cross streets and dealing with the uneasiness that sometimes descends when he's in a large, unconfined space.

"To be honest, I think I'm doing pretty good," he says. "I only had real anxiety twice. The last time I went over to the park and ran with the dog" — a yellow Lab puppy named Andy — "for an hour and felt pretty good after that."

He figures he's got more to be thankful about this Thanksgiving than most. He plans to find employment soon and hopes to continue working with juveniles, driving home his message of making smart choices: "I think I'm able to relate to them on a level their parents may not be able to. I tell them, 'You can make a wrong choice in your life, and if you're with the wrong people, you're going to be held accountable for their wrong choice.'"

Many of the other juvenile lifers are still awaiting resentencing hearings. Jacob Ind, sentenced to life for the 1992 murders of his mother and stepfather, recently won a new trial but agreed to plead guilty to second-degree murder instead, in the hope of a lesser sentence that could lead to his immediate release. Another juvie lifer, Erik Jensen, whose case has been covered from Westword to Rolling Stone, is challenging the constitutionality of the two-track sentencing scheme. 
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast