Longform

Will juvenile lifers get a second chance?

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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.

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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."

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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