Longform

Will juvenile lifers get a second chance?

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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?"

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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."

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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