Longform

Will juvenile lifers get a second chance?

Page 5 of 8

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."

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