Will juvenile lifers get a second chance?

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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."

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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