Will juvenile lifers get a second chance?

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Johnson admits he's had his share of "wrecks" in prison. He'd been in three years when he began to feel the full weight of the endless time stretching ahead of him. He became depressed and suicidal. Another inmate offered him a little heroin to take the edge off, and he was soon a regular user. He lost his visiting privileges and took some time getting clean.

In 2001 a new cellie of Johnson's was involved in a fatal attack on another prisoner at the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility. Johnson was never charged in the case, but he was shipped to the Colorado State Penitentiary during the subsequent investigation and spent the next four years in solitary confinement, protesting his innocence.

In recent years, Johnson has managed to turn things around. Evaluations done when he first entered the prison system indicated he was reading at a third-grade level. He has since completed his GED, taught himself Spanish, and devoured books on religion, investing and self-help topics. Improving his reading and writing skills was "a huge confidence-builder," he says.

"I used to pay attention to what was going on around me and let it affect me," he explains. "But I can't control none of this. Prison is a plethora of depression. If you get consumed in it, it's going to eat you up. So I try to live from the inside. That way I don't get caught up in the ignorance around me. I read a lot."

One piece of reading that has stayed with him arrived in an envelope mailed from another prison six years ago. Inside was a handwritten two-page letter, with a name at the end Johnson recognized from long ago. It began:

Hey man, hope this letter finds you in good spirits and health. Considering the situations I know you probably weren't expecting to hear from me. It's been a long time. But you were going through somethings and me as well. And now I am writing. You probably wondering why. Cause I want to clear my conscious. I know you could care less. But you might be interested in what I have to say.

First off, I want to apologize to you, for ruining your life. If you hadn't had met me at that particular time in my life, who knows...

According to the letter, Johnathan Jordan had found God, and I'm trying to live right by HIM. As Jordan explained it, living right meant acknowledging in writing that he was the person who had committed "this senseless murder" for which they were now both serving time.

I don't know if this is to late or anything for you. I can't give back the years you lost cause of me. I don't know what the future holds for you. Hopefully not in here. But I'm here to confess to you and to whoever else will listen on your behalf. You and me know I did it. You had nothing to do with it. I'm so sorry...

I don't even know what made me take it that far. He wouldn't give me the wallet. I didn't have intentions to kill anybody. Maybe just scare him. I did intend on jacking somebody though. I should have at least told you that part. I don't know what I was thinking through any of this.

Jordan didn't respond to a request for an interview or acknowledge that he wrote the letter, which is now posted on Johnson's website, along with other documents pertaining to the case. Johnson says his co-defendant has been reluctant to repeat his comments in any public forum and may be having second thoughts about how a confession might affect his own hopes of clemency some day.

Sitting behind glass in a small visitation booth at the Centennial Correctional Facility, Johnson studies the walls hemming him in and picks his words carefully.

"I'm not trying to play the victim," he says. "There ain't but one victim in this case. But, honestly, a part of me has always felt that the man killed me, too. My life is over. This is where I'll die. That's hard to accept. For a lot of years, I was just angry. I hated him. But I don't want to sit here and be angry all day long."

Johnson doesn't have an attorney at present, and he isn't sure how or when his case might come up for resentencing. He hopes he'll have a chance to present evidence in his cause some day — the letter from Jordan, his accomplishments of the past few years, some indication of the clueless adolescent he was and the person he's become — rather than have some judge who's never met him rubber-stamp a new sentence of forty years to life. He shudders at the idea that his parents and just about everyone else who ever meant something to him on the outside could be long gone before he gets out.

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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