(Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of articles where Hannah Garcia will explore the cases of 48 juveniles whose life-in-prison sentences violate a U.S. Supreme Court opinion)
Colorado’s Fremont Correctional Facility anchors the East Canon complex, a six-prison sprawl nestled in the dusty shadow of the Rockies in Cañon City. Beyond the high razor-wire fences, the prison sits under a wide, empty sky, and the mountains stand close enough to reveal craggy wrinkles and the hems of their snowcaps.
Jeff Johnson lives here.
He is one among 1,620 inmates housed at Fremont but one of only 48 prisoners in the state serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed before their 18th birthdays.
For the past 21 years, Johnson has spent time in Colorado penitentiaries for the murder of a man he says he did not kill.
Johnson was convicted for the murder of John Leonardelli, a 55-year-old insurance broker who on March 29, 1994, was left on the concrete floor of an Aurora parking garage with 13 stab wounds.
A letter Johnson received from his co-defendant provided a confession that might have exonerated him, but it came more than a decade too late. And while a mounting legal war rolls on outside over the legality of their sentences, inmates like Johnson wait in a legal limbo somewhere between a chance at liberation and an eventual death behind bars.
A NEW NUMBER
Police detained Johnathan Jordan, 19 at the time, the day after Leonardelli’s murder after talking to several witnesses. Jordan’s initial account to police led to Johnson’s arrest on March 31, 1994, and it was the first building block in the case against him.
Johnson was a poor student by his own admission. The child of parents who divorced before he reached grade school and sibling to a star athlete, Johnson described himself as a defiant youth who couldn’t read, sought attention and caused disruptions as he went.
Even so, he had no juvenile record at the time.
Johnson bounced back and forth between living with his mother and father, he said. During his freshman year of high school, he befriended an older student who introduced him to a life most teenagers dream of: marijuana, parties fueled by alcohol, skipping school, no curfew.
In late 1993, Johnson and his friend became involved with a group of runaways that drove around the state selling door-to-door magazine subscriptions, led by an older man. After a few days, police stopped a vehicle with Johnson and other members of the group and found out the girls were told to prostitute themselves to bring in more money than they could selling magazines.
No one came to pick him up at the police station, and he was transported to the Montview Juvenile Facility, where he was told to choose between a Job Corps program in Utah or a local youth emancipation program. He chose the latter — not a difficult decision, he said.
He was placed in a group home at the end of 1993 and did well in the program, he said. He got a job and began taking GED classes.
In March 1994, he met Jordan for the first time. He was Johnson’s opposite in more ways than one: He was black and had purported gang ties and an outstanding warrant. He was the one who would usher Johnson from an imperfect childhood to, in the span of a few days, spending the rest of his natural life in prison.
“When I die, I guess the one thing I could hope I could prove is that prison doesn’t define me as a person,” Johnson said. “I want to be somebody. All I’ve been for the last 21 years is a number.”
Aurora police detained Jordan around midnight the day after Leonardelli’s murder. Detectives shuffled him into an interview room at the police department, according to a statement of facts within a 1995 Colorado Supreme Court opinion in People v. Jordan. Detective Dan Dailey, with an offering of coffee and a cigarette, told him he was being questioned about first-degree murder.
Initially, Jordan denied any involvement, saying he and a companion named “Tom” were just passing through at the time and heard about the murder the following day from news reports. When Dailey told Jordan that his roommate tipped off police about his involvement, he gave in.
“I’ll tell you the whole story, the truth now. All right,” Jordan said, according to court records.
He told Dailey that he and Johnson had arrived at the parking garage intent on stealing a car, saw Leonardelli’s white Jaguar and waited.
When the victim appeared, Jordan said he struck him over the head before Johnson began stabbing him. The pair took Leonardelli’s Rolex watch, gold bracelet, diamond ring and car keys. After ditching the car at an apartment complex, Jordan told the detective that he and Johnson ran to a bus stop before eventually parting ways.
While the ending is the same, Johnson tells a radically different story.
He barely knew Jordan and had only met him maybe three times by that point, he said. Jordan was at the group home when Johnson returned from work. Jordan was looking for a ride to pick up his paycheck and asked one of the “foster moms” to take him. Something was wrong with her car, so she suggested Jordan take Johnson with him if he wanted company. He promised the younger teen $10 to hang around.
The two boarded a bus and rode to Jordan’s workplace. His check was only $85, twenty bucks short of the rent he needed. Johnson said Jordan complained about the amount and fretted that his roommate would kick him out if he couldn’t pay.
Jordan wanted to wander to a nearby parking garage to rummage through cars in the hopes of stealing something he could sell. Fearing that he would be sent to Utah, Johnson needed to keep his nose clean, and he headed across the street to a convenience store to finagle some cigarettes. He turned around when the shop wouldn’t sell him any.
He found Jordan in the parking garage and they headed to the top level to smoke weed while waiting for the bus, only to miss it after losing track of time.
After heading back downstairs, Jordan pointed out Leonardelli’s white Jaguar.
“That’s when I started walking over to the other door to walk away, and I told him I was just going to go wait for him at the bus stop,” Johnson said. He started walking toward the exit when he heard another door open and shut. When he turned around, Jordan and Leonardelli were wrestling.
“(Leonardelli’s) whole front was saturated with blood,” Johnson said. “I seen the knife in John’s hand and that’s when everything kind of registered. Everything was happening, but it was happening so slow.”
“I’ve never been that scared,” he said.
Another man came into the garage, and Johnson said he tried to tell him to get help for Leonardelli, who was painted with fresh blood and propped against a pillar. The stranger ran, and Jordan began yelling at Johnson to get in the car.
“He just kept saying, ‘get in the car, don’t say nothing to nobody,’ and I just kept thinking, who the hell could I tell?” Johnson said. “I didn’t really have anybody in my life at that point. I just kept thinking, don’t talk about it and it will go away.”
In the following day and a half, Johnson described the panic and denial that tend to follow traumas, something he called “an insane level of fear.” He had never seen that kind of violence before.
He was walking with another teenager from the group home to a corner gas station when police took him into custody.
TRIAL BY IRE
When it comes to legal legs-up, Jordan had the benefit of talking to police first and going to court last.
When asked about the original trial, Johnson described a profound lack of understanding about everything — the charges and potential sentence he faced, the reasoning behind his lawyer’s decisions, who he could trust to help him.
“When I look back at it, I don’t understand how I could have ever been tried fairly because the system’s not designed to try juveniles in an adult court,” Johnson said. He described a weak relationship with his defense attorney, John Pagliuca. When he asked Pagliuca to explain the proceedings and arguments, Johnson said he was met with apathy.
In an email, Pagliuca said he was limited by ethical obligations on what he could say about the case, but he was familiar with Johnson’s claims about his counsel. He called the assertions “inaccurate and unfortunate.” “But,” he wrote, “having done this work for 33 years, I understand why Jeffrey is saying those kinds of things.”
Like in Johnson’s case, prosecutors have a broad span of discretion and can direct-file a juvenile case into the adult court system.
During the 1994 trial, the prosecutor relied on Jordan’s version of events. Johnson’s roommate testified that he saw him put a kitchen knife in his jacket before leaving with Jordan that day. Danny Curtis, another resident, testified that Johnson admitted to the crime and asked him to hold onto the jewelry stolen from Leonardelli, but admitted on the stand that he had told different versions of his story.
“The last thing I remember is when they said life without parole, the whole back of his neck went bright red. I don’t even know if he had a pulse,” Johnson’s father said. “Your mind gets so numb, it’s hard to believe this is actually real. It’s the last thing you would want to happen to your kid.”
Johnson didn’t testify in his own defense, and Pagliuca called no witnesses, although neither action is uncommon.
Johnson’s co-defendant pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and armed robbery charges, which earned him a total of 100 years in prison. Jordan’s estimated parole hearing date is Oct. 26, 2037, when he’ll be 62 years old, according to the Colorado Department of Corrections.
APPEALING TO HIGHER POWERS
Since prosecutors have wide discretion on how crimes are tried, it’s difficult to say if Johnson’s fate would have been different even if Jordan had confessed as the principal suspect in 1994. Under Colorado’s felony-murder statute, defendants can be convicted without actually killing anyone if the victim dies during the commission of a first-degree felony such as kidnapping or armed robbery.
Tally Zuckerman, a trial lawyer who has represented Johnson since last year, called the statute unduly harsh and said the impact on juveniles in the adult system is particularly troubling.
“The textbook example of felony-murder that’s always used is two co-defendants go into a convenience store intending to commit robbery, no one has any plans to kill anyone. Something goes wrong, one gunman shoots the clerk, and the other is on the hook for first-degree murder,” Zuckerman said.
“The way our felony-murder statute plays out in reality is very different,” she said. “I think what the general public thinks of as first-degree murder is not felony murder. There is no deliberation, there’s no malice aforethought, there’s no lying in wait or any of these things that you typically think of when you hear ‘first-degree murder.’”
Around 26 percent of juvenile lifers in the U.S. were convicted of felony murder or something called “accomplice liability,” according to a 2005 report from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Of Colorado’s 48 juvenile life-without-parole inmates, about a third have felony murder convictions without a first-degree murder conviction.
Case law has developed in recent years that offer more protections for juveniles in the adult court system. Most recently from the U.S. Supreme Court, Miller v. Alabama invalidated mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles in 2012 but did not provide clear guidance on its application to convictions levied prior to the ruling.
Aside from the question of whether Miller’s voidance of life-without-parole sentences for youth applies retroactively, there is also a legal debate around what kind of sentencing scheme would satisfy the ruling’s prescription for individualized sentences.
During oral arguments last June in three juvenile life-without-parole cases, assistant Colorado Attorney General Elizabeth Rohrbaugh agreed that Miller made the defendants’ sentences unconstitutional. The state’s remedy is found in state statute, which imposes a mandatory minimum of 40 to life for first-degree murder convictions.
Johnson has navigated appeals in the last two decades, and Zuckerman continued his legal fight with a new 35(c) appeal last April. The challenge seeks a ruling on the merits of the case, but also raises questions about the constitutionality of his sentence under Miller.
At the end of the paper trail, Johnson questioned the purpose if 40 years is the best the courts can do.
“If we go out after 40 calendars — my parents are already in their 70s, so they’d be in their mid-90s,” Johnson said. “Chances are we’ll be going out to nobody and nothing. A lot of guys, they get out of prison and go into construction or whatever. I’m not sure how many houses I’ll be building at 60.”
More than a decade after the original crime, Jordan sent Jeff a handwritten, two-page letter postmarked Dec. 14, 2006. In it, he apologized for ruining Johnson’s life and wrote about his newfound faith in God. He admitted to stabbing Leonardelli, bringing the knife and setting out with an intention to rob someone.
“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,” Jordan wrote. “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.”
After his signature, he ends the letter with: “Again, I’m sorry.”
“I guess I hated — I hated, I hated John for so long, and for some reason, that letter just kind of — even though it’s never going to be right … I could feel him in that letter,” Johnson said. “It was like, you killed me too, and everything I ever wanted to be or wanted to do, you killed it.”
Zuckerman said she talked to Jordan herself and “heard it from the horse’s mouth,” and she was able to verify its authenticity with a third-party investigator. While compelling, the eight-year-old letter alone is not enough to set Jeff free.
“I think there is a public perception that new evidence like the Jordan letter makes everything right,” Zuckerman said. “It barely makes a blip.”
THE BENEFIT OF DOUBTS
While Miller v. Alabama’s third anniversary is approaching, state courts have split on the application of the landmark ruling. Four state supreme courts have ruled that Miller does not apply to juvenile lifers convicted before it was handed down on June 25, 2012, while nine made the ruling fully retroactive.
“We have a juvenile system for a reason,” Zuckerman said. “If you look at what the purpose of the children’s code is, it’s not meant to be punitive. The purpose is for rehabilitation. I don’t think that because the crime is more severe necessarily means that child should be a throwaway.”
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a Miller challenge for the first time on Dec. 12, but the case was dismissed after the defendant’s release resulted from a plea bargain. Toca v. Louisiana involved a 17-year-old, George Toca, who was arrested for accidentally and fatally shooting his friend during a botched armed robbery in 1984. The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that Miller didn’t apply to Toca based on the idea the 2012 ruling provided a new procedural rule of law, not a substantive right.
Toca’s plea deal for lesser crimes provided him the guarantee of an immediate release while continuing the legal battle in front of the nation’s highest court might have only provided an opportunity for release at some point, and that’s assuming the court would have ruled in his favor at all.
“Mr. Toca is no longer subject to a mandatory life-without-parole sentence, and, therefore, Miller is now inapplicable to his case,” lawyers for the state and Toca wrote in a letter to U.S. Supreme Court clerk Sam Clark asking that the case be dismissed as moot. “Because Mr. Toca no longer has a mandatory life-without-parole sentence, there is no live case or controversy before this Court.”
If the U.S. Supreme Court had actually heard arguments in Toca, the resulting decision could have answered questions about Miller’s application once and for all. Toca’s bid for review shares at least one similarity with Miller, at least for Colorado: on its face, it offered a hope for resolution, only to sink as quickly as it surfaced.
“It seems like we kind of got false hope,” Johnson said. “All these states have been ruled on it. Colorado ain’t doing nothing.”
When they enter the prison system, teenagers inherently will have more difficulties than their adult counterparts. The reasons are many: general naiveté, lack of experience with the criminal justice system, single parents, no parents, inability to think critically, a penchant for fear and misunderstanding.
Some are more vulnerable than others; some 80 percent of juvenile lifers nationwide said they saw some kind of violence at home, while around 54 percent witnessed crime and brutality in their neighborhoods, according to a 2012 report from the Fair Sentencing Project. An 80-percent majority of females and about half of all juvenile lifers claimed they were physically abused.
“When you first come to prison, you are a target,” Johnson said. “When you’re a juvenile, you basically get punked into everything.”
As a convicted murderer with a life sentence, Johnson found himself among “the worst of the worst.” He fell victim to older inmates running every scam imaginable and leveling arbitrary beatings.
Johnson found some relief and companionship with his first cellmate, a burly 6-foot-2 “seasoned inmate” named Vic. He and another inmate, Kurt Pichon, looked out for Johnson, gave him advice and told him about “the convict’s code.”
Johnson said Pichon showed him the law library and gave him a strategy to learn to read with comic books and TV captions. At some point, Johnson said he struggled during his first few years of incarceration, the weight of what his reality would be pushing him down into a chasmic depression.
In 1998, a pill prescribed to him by prison staff made him feel suicidal, and he began cutting himself the first night he took the pill, he said. He got involved with a heroin trade, seeking an emotional anesthesia, and lost visitation privileges as a result.
It’s not all sob stories, according to Johnson. He earned his GED in 2009 and developed a close relationship with his father and stepmother. Both attended his graduation ceremony in prison.
“I’ve said to him, you’ve got to accept the situation you’re in and just live with it. The best thing you could do is to survive,” his father said. “He’s done that better, I think, than I could.”
While he’s found a measure of peace, and although he maintains that he did not actually kill Leonardelli, he struggles with the idea that the man who did received a vague opportunity for freedom while he has none.
“My grandma used to tell me, everybody’s got a life sentence, we’ve just got to do them in different places,” Johnson said. “Once I started figuring out that universal truth and trying to apply it in principle to my daily life, I think it kind of helped.”
And he still feels a sense of obligation to the victim’s family, using it to fuel a sense of purpose. He reads voraciously now, gravitating to nonfiction books about business and trying his hand at writing a Western-style novel.
“Mentally, I think I’m freer than most people you’re going to meet in here,” he said. “I struggled for a long time but now I’m kind of content with my situation. I don’t think if you have a good life or a bad life is contingent upon whether you go to the streets or not.”’
— Hannah Garcia, [email protected]