The November 29th, 2012 issue of Westword Denver has three very good articles about Jeff Johnson's case history and the supreme court decision on LWOP. You can view the the articles by clicking on the links below:
FORGOTTEN JUSTICE, LLC
A Better Life is Always a Choice Away
Welcome to Forgotten Justice. My name is Jeff Johnson. I was a juvenile who was tried as an adult in March 1994 and given Life Without Parole (LWOP). That means I will die behind these prison walls. This is my story.
My parents have been divorced as long as I can remember. My Father remarried and my Mother has remained single.
I grew up with my Mother and my older Brother. We lived in a small but comfortable home in Aurora, Colorado. My Father lived in Centennial, Colorado.
Our arrangement was every other weekend my Brother and I would spend the weekend with my Father and Stepmother.
I always had wished that my parents would have stayed together and a part of me always blamed myself for their divorce.
School was hard for me. I acted out a lot seeking attention I thought I needed. I struggled with comprehension and my focus was basically non-existent. In the third grade I was placed in Special Education. I still remember my teachers to this day. Two of the most special teachers as well as people I ever encountered.
Around that same time I began seeing a psychiatrist and I was diagnosed with Attention Deficient Disorder and put on Ritalin. Somehow I kept processing through school. Looking back it doesn’t make sense for the fact I always had D’s and F’s; yet, they kept sending me to the next grade. I was going through grades and I could barely read or write, let alone concentrate on anything meaningful.
Between my 8th and 9th grade transition, I remember my Mother and I had a meeting with the staff of the Middle School regarding whether I should be held back a year. My Mother couldn’t understand how I kept advancing grades without passing them. My Brother began to get on me about school and my grades and, instead of telling him my secret that I could barely read or write let alone pay attention and not wanting him to look down on me, I began to distance myself from him.
Honestly, I did the same thing to my parents as well. When I felt they were getting too close, I’d pick an argument with one and move in with the other. It worked until one time I took my words too far and my Mother had enough. She pulled the car over and told me to go back home. We were probably less than a quarter of a mile away from our house. Instead of going home I went and stayed with someone who at the time I thought was my friend. Once I left, I never heard from him again. I thought he had the ideal lifestyle. His dad worked all night and slept all day. He had no rules, curfews or anything.
We went to High School together. I was a freshman and he was a sophomore. He introduced me to a different lifestyle. I tried smoking weed and drinking alcohol with him and began ditching school and going to parties, etc. His dad didn’t even know I was living there for about two months. When he found out, I moved into an apartment with my friend’s girlfriend’s dad for a couple of weeks.
My buddy and I met some people who traveled by cars through the State selling magazine subscriptions door to door. There was one older guy who ran things and the rest of the people were runaway kids. We hooked up with them for a few days until the cops pulled us over. The older guy was using the girls to sell more than magazines and using the boys for other scams. I was taken to the Police Department where my father was called to come and pick me up.
No one came for me. My father had finally had enough and looking back I can’t blame him. The State took me over and I was taken to Montview Juvenile Facility while awaiting a group home. I’ve contemplated for years how I failed to see how blessed I was with three great parents who loved me tremendously. Why didn’t I ever just listen to them? Somehow I convinced myself that I knew better.
At the Detention Facility I was given a choice of two programs. The first was Job Corp in Clearfield, Utah. It’s a program where you go to school and learn a trade. The second option was an emancipation program. A program designed for people under 18 years old to get a job and their own place legally becoming their own adult before the age of 18 years old. The decision wasn’t hard. I knew I couldn’t do school again so I picked the emancipation program. My days were split between working and going to class to obtain my G.E.D. Those three hours in class were spent talking to the people who sat next to me.
I went to the emancipation program in December, 1993 and was doing really well. Towards the end of March of 1994 I met my Co-Defendant. One of the foster brothers had seen him on the bus and brought him home. He had already emancipated out of this home a couple of years before I got there. He is a black guy who dressed and acted the gangster role. I had never been around anyone like that before. The night I met him we talked for maybe a half hour, give or take. I went to his apartment that he shared with another guy.
About a week later he was at the foster home when I returned from work. He asked one of the foster moms to take him to get his check. There was a problem with her car or something so she couldn’t take him. He didn’t want to go by himself and the other foster brother couldn’t go because he was on probation for a stolen car. My foster mom said he could take me with him, so we hopped on the bus.
When we got to his job and he got his check, he said that it wasn’t far enough money. There was a parking garage close by and he said he was going to go through there and see if he could find something he could sell. I told him I can’t get caught up in that because, if I get in trouble, they’ll send me to Job Corp. I told him I was going to run over to Cub Foods and see if I could get a pack of cigarettes.
When I came back, he told me that the bus didn’t come back through for like an hour. We decided to go up to the top level of the garage, sitting down in the back corner so we wouldn’t be seen and began smoking weed. We forgot all about the time and missed the bus.
We headed back down a different set of stairs and we came out on the mid-level. There was a car there and he said he was going to go through it. I told him that I’d wait for him at the bus stop. I made it about 25 to 30 yards away from him to the far door when I heard the other door close behind me. When I turned around I saw someone moving quickly towards my Co-Defendant in the car. They began what looked like wrestling.
I ran over there and when I got there I stopped in my tracks as reality set in. The guy was really bloody where my Co-Defendant had stabbed him. The victim was sitting with his back against the concrete pillar. His shirt was saturated in blood. I have no idea how to explain how I felt or what I was thinking at that moment. I had never seen anything like this. It was like I was seeing it but it wasn’t real. My thoughts were moving so slowly. I know that probably makes no sense but I don’t know how else to explain it.
Another guy entered the garage and I said this guy needs help. He looked past me, then turned around and ran out. I didn’t want him to leave me here and I began to slowly walk after him until I heard my Co-Defendant yell at me that we had to get out of there. When I turned around I noticed he still had the knife in his hand and he opened the victim’s car door and we left. He looked so strange to me at that moment.
I can’t explain or excuse why I didn’t do something. I’ve never experienced fear on that level. It was the most intense feeling in my life and I will regret those few moments the rest of my life.
My Co-Defendant kept saying over and over that he didn’t mean to do it. He also kept telling me to keep my mouth shut, not to tell anyone. I told him I wasn’t going to tell anyone, who could I tell? I didn’t feel like I had anyone that I could tell.
I tried to live as if it never happened. That it was all a bad dream. At least that’s what I kept telling myself. Two days later I came home from work and reality hit. I saw that the victim had died. I couldn’t believe it. Now I really didn’t know what to do.
Another foster brother and I headed to the gas station on 10th and Havana that would let us buy a pack of smokes. We never made it – halfway there I was arrested.
My father hired two lawyers and we were trying to work out a deal with the State. I confessed everything to my lawyers. It was actually a relief to tell somebody. After a short while my father was unable to keep paying the lawyers’ fees. The Court found me indigent and gave me a court-appointed lawyer named Jeffrey Pagliuca. His demeanor was really confident or so I thought at the time. Now I realize he was just extremely arrogant.
I explained what happened to Mr. Pagliuca. I told him that one of the lawyers my father had hired (Mr. Faber) said he could work for a 20-year plea deal. Mr. Pagliuca said “no, we’re not talking to them, we’ll do better in trial.” So I never talked to the police or district attorney because my lawyer wouldn’t let me. As a juvenile, everything is controlled by your lawyer.
During the year I was going to Court, I’d ask him what was happening and he would hand me the discovery. I eventually told him I couldn’t read very well. He said that he didn’t have time to talk, and he needed to listen. Usually, he’d tell me to just go on back to my cell and
he could come by later and explain what happened in Court. He only came a couple of times and rarely explained to me my situation or what had happened. He’d tell me more about the house he was going to buy in Cherry Hills.
I remember one time my Co-Defendant’s lawyer sent him for a psychiatric evaluation at the State Hospital. My family and I asked my lawyer if he’d have one done on me and my mother told him of my history with the psychiatrist. He said no and that there was no need to have one done on me.
Here I was a juvenile being tried in the adult courts and I wasn’t even fully understanding what was going on. I didn’t understand half of the words they spoke and all the legalities. There were times I thought conversations were on entirely different topics.
I was taken to the adult courts by what was called a “Direct File”. I was told that I was adjudicated. I had no idea what that meant. Direct File, in my mind, is unconstitutional. It determines whether we stay in juvenile courts or are transferred to the adult courts solely in a district attorney’s hands, not a judge’s.
Two kids who are both first-time offenders could catch similar murder cases. One of the district attorneys tries his juvenile in the juvenile courts while the other district attorney tries his in the adult courts. In the juvenile courts a juvenile would be facing five years or more. In the adult courts the juvenile will be facing the rest of his life.
If the district attorney wants to climb the political ladder and show they are tough on crime, there is a good chance the juvenile will go straight to the adult courts. Whereas the other district attorney may decide it’s best for everyone involved to keep the juvenile in the juvenile system. He’ll look closely at the juvenile’s history and decide what’s in the best interest of justice instead of politics.
I believe there should be some sort of system set before juveniles are taken to the adult courts. It should be reserved for the worst of the worst juveniles. I’d never had any prior felonies or anything.
When I went to trial, I had planned on taking the stand. I spoke with my family and we thought it would be best. Everyone who testified against me was friends or family members of my Co-Defendant. They testified I committed this crime for him. I even barely knew him! It was all of these statements against me and nothing from me. No one was telling my side of the story.
They had my Co-Defendant’s clothes which were covered in the victim’s blood. They had mine as well which did not have any of the victim’s blood on them.
I wanted to testify at my trial. My lawyer told me if I did I’d be labeled as a rat and killed in prison so I didn’t testify. My lawyer didn’t call any witnesses for me nor did he raise any form of a defense that I can tell. To make it worse, my lawyer made a statement that the district attorney used and told the jury that they had no choice but to convict me. He even added lesser included charges, confessed to them and I got sentenced to more time for charges my lawyer added. That statement by my lawyer gave me a Life Without Parole Sentence.
He said something like in our attempt to flee, we left in the victim’s car, that’s Felony Murder and an automatic Life Without Parole sentence. I asked my attorney, Mr. Pagliuca what that meant, “Life Without Parole”. He smirked and said until I die. The reality didn't set in at that point. It didn’t make any sense, none of this did.
I believed, and I still believe, that I should’ve been sentenced to some time. I let fear control me instead of stepping up like a man and doing something. I’ll be in here for the rest of my life for being a coward and not making the right decision. My Co-Defendant took two lives that night and that’s not counting the continued stress and grief on the families of both the victim and my family. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve replayed that scenario in my head over all these years if I would have been a hero instead of a coward.
It’s hard to continue to find hope. My Co-Defendant, who had numerous felonies prior to this case, was given a plea bargain. He’ll get another chance at life and he actually committed the murder. I’m a first-time offender and I’ll die behind these walls for being there. How does that make sense?
The day I got sentenced they moved me into the adult pods. I was moved into a cell with two big black guys. I was given a blue container, which we call a blue boat, to put my mattress inside of. They slept on the bunks and I slept on the floor.
When I got all my stuff inside the cell, one of them pulled the door shut and they told me there were some racial problems that were going to get dealt with as soon as count was over. I told them I’m not a racist, I’ll stay in the cell. They looked at each other and laughed. They told me to put the blue boat under the bed, so I pushed it under. As soon as I did they told me I would never make it in prison. I asked if someone would kill me or something. They laughed and said I was to white washed. I asked what that was. They ignored me and asked if I had ever been in a fight. I said no. I don’t have any reason to fight anyone. I don’t disrespect anyone. They said they were going to help toughen me up and I asked how? They began to punch me repeatedly until I fell on the ground and curled up. Then they started kicking me.
Every day they’d beat me up making sure to never hit me in the face to bring the guard’s attention. This is called bodies. They said if I ever told I wouldn’t live through the night. A few weeks had passed and they were transferred out to prison. I was relieved and scared. Relieved they were gone and scared because I knew I’d be next. A couple of weeks later I was told to pack it up; I was on my way to prison.
Before I was transferred to prison, I was sent to the Denver Reception Diagnostic Center (D.R.D.C.). It’s a transitional facility. They give you all sorts of tests, for medical, psychological and education level. I found out then that my reading level was only third grade.
When I made it to prison it was terrifying. I was just a teenager weighing maybe 150 lbs. and because I was doing life without parole, I was housed with the worst of the worst. My cell mate, we call “cellie” was a “convict”.
A seasoned inmate who was extremely tough. He was probably 6’2” and weighed around 260 lbs. Luckily for me, he was a good guy. He gave me rules called the convict’s code that I was forced to follow. He asked if I was a gang member or racist. I told him no to both. He told me to stay away from gambling, stores (loan commissary for interest), gangs and drugs.
He asked if I had money and I said no. The only money I had was if my family sent me some. He asked if I needed something, I said no. He said good answer. Never get anything from anyone you don’t know. Vic was his name. He ended up moving to a lower custody facility. Vic and his buddy, Kurt, looked out for me. Kurt is a prison success story. He now runs his own company here in Colorado.
Even with them looking out for me, I still found myself in multiple prison wrecks. Everything about this environment was foreign to me. I’ve had every prison scam run on me. I’ve been victim to numerous body assaults.
Kurt wanted to help me with my case. He took me to the law library and asked me to read a part of a case to him and I couldn’t. He told me to go to the library and get some comic books. Also to start watching my TV with the closed caption on -- that it would help me learn to read better. I never did get the chance for him to help me with my case. By the time my family had saved up enough money to get the transcripts he wanted. Kurt had been moved to another facility.
Towards the end of 1998 I was called into mental health for my three evaluations. They put me on a pill and I began to feel suicidal immediately. I went back to mental health and told them how I was feeling and they sent me back to my cell and said it was just my body adjusting to them. I cut my wrist that night.
Around this same time reality was showing up. I had only been ignoring it for five years. I was only 22 years old and I finally realized I could be in here for the next 50 to 70 years until I die. I got really depressed. A heroin dealer in prison told me to try heroin, that it would help numb my emotions temporarily and I liked that. I ended up losing my visits with my family for years as a punishment.
When I finally got my privileges back, my family came to visit. I could see the pain and disappointment that was so evident in their eyes. I never wanted to be the reason for their pain. I had been a part of so much pain. For once, I wanted to be the reason for their happiness. I got off the drug and really reevaluated my life.
In my short life, I’ve fallen numerous times. I’ve only been able to get up, thanks to my family who have tried hard to be there, to help me get back up and believe in me. As the years have gone by, my family and I have become closer. I truly wish I would have given them more of a chance when I was younger.
As I began to learn how to read and write better it was a huge confidence builder for me. I’m a long ways from where I was just four to five years ago. I used to have to pay guys to write down what I said so I could rewrite it or have them read my letters to me.
I asked the Court for a lawyer to help me prepare my 35(c) cause I was still a very long way from being able to read case law, let alone understand what I was reading. It’s like a foreign language. However, the Court denied me a lawyer.
In 2009 I made the biggest accomplishment to date. I earned my G.E.D. Finally, I realized how much potential I do have. More importantly though I could see the happiness in my fathers and step mothers eyes as they cared enough to be at my prison graduation.
Billy, a friend of mine in here, helped me file my 35(c) and now the Court has kicked me out for “leches”: Leches I’m told means, I waited too long to file. I’m not sure what I was supposed to do? I couldn’t read. I live off of $5.00 a month unless my family sends me a little and we are definitely not rich. To make it worse they say there’s no time limit on LWOP sentences. Now, they are telling me the exact opposite.
My Co-Defendant who was an adult at the time of the crime, received a plea bargain, and has a date when he will get out of prison. He doesn’t need to worry about appeals. To my
Co-Defendant’s credit, he has since turned his life over to God. You can read the letter he wrote to me on this website where he finally admitted that he was the one who actually stabbed the victim.
A lot of people ask me if I hate him – to be honest, I did. His actions cost the victim his life, gave both his family and my family incredible grief and pain and also cost me, my future. He will get a second chance at life, I won’t. I’ve been sentenced to die in prison. Absolutely nothing about this entire case makes any sense. None of it needed to happen. I wish I had the power to go back and redo everything.
Since I learned to read, I’ve dedicated myself to learning. I’ve studied religions, business, real estate, accounting, stocks, bonds, CD’s and mutual funds. I’m currently studying Spanish and can now speak it somewhat fluently. I can hold a conversation which is an accomplishment to add to my list, as I continue to strive for a better life.
My father called around and talked to several lawyers and they quoted it could cost up to six figures to take me from where I’m at now in my case and possibly go back through another trial or to at least try and get a sentence reduction. There is no way we can afford that so I have to realize that I’ll probably never go home. That’s something I probably can’t change. However, maybe my story or something I say may help someone somewhere. For that opportunity alone it’s a pleasure to be a part of Forgotten Justice.
A lot of guys ask me, why do I even care because I’m going to die behind these walls. That very well may be the case. I have definitely been sentenced to die behind prison walls, however, I’m not dead yet. I can still help other people. I want to give back. At the end of the day, I’m human and I care.
I was involved in this ignorant crime whether I wanted to be or not. It doesn’t matter what I wanted. This is my reality and I have to live with it and try to live a better life to become a better person. If I can help others find that same kind of enlightenment, I owe it to the victim and both of our families of this senseless crime. I also feel a need to help all the other victims in the world and their families as well, because crime affects everyone.
I can never give back what was lost and I’d never disrespect anyone in assuming I can. My words hold no meaning unless I do my best to live out my life in my actions. I hate this lifestyle and everything it stands for. When I die, I hope people won’t say “Prison defined him as a person.”
If you are able to help me, whether it is financially, with your time or in some other way, please do. I only ask one more thing. Please remember me in your prayers. I need all the help I can get. Thank you for your time in reading this. I apologize about the length. I wish all of you the best as you continue to chase and accomplish your dreams. Remember, dreams are only dreams unless we fight to make them a reality.
To write me directly:
Jeff Johnson #86873
P.O. Box 999
Canon City, CO 81215
Please employ others to visit us with updates at: www.forgottenjustice.com
In closing, I’d like to give a special thanks to my Father, Step-mother, Mother, Brother, Niece and Step-brother. I can never thank you enough. You’ve stood by me through it all. Teaching me what unconditional love really means. Grandma, who has written me every week since I got locked up. M.J. who helped me scan my legal documents. W.B. who has been a great role model and my inspiration. C.K. forget me not. All the juvenile companies, lawyers, advocates, friends and families of offenders. Thank you guys for giving us a voice and believing in us. Lastly, a special thanks to all of you who have been a part of and made an impact on my life. I continue to find myself trying to be the man you all saw in me that I was unable to see.
Thank you and I love you all.