DENVER – Twenty-four years after he was sentenced to life in prison without parole on a murder charge, a Colorado man is getting a second chance at life and is making it count.
Jeff Johnson, 41, was convicted in 1994 of killing John Leonardelli in a carjacking incident.
But after the man who was convicted alongside him in Leonardelli’s death confessed and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling regarding juvenile sentences, Johnson was released from prison earlier this month after more than two decades inside and now plans to continue the work he started there while on the outside.
Johnson was 17 years old when he and Jonathan Jordan, then 19, were arrested for stabbing to death Leonardelli – a father of six – in an Aurora parking garage. Johnson said he saw Jordan stab Leonardelli but instead of helping the dying man, he instead jumped into Leonardelli’s Jaguar along with Jordan and leaving the scene.
Both were convicted, but Jordan at one point admitted to killing Leonardelli. Johnson himself got into drugs while in prison but decided to turn his life around.
He started program in prison to help other inmates and got involved in restorative justice programs to try and help mediate between criminals and their victims.
After Jordan confessed in a letter to Johnson, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that automatic life sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional. Colorado passed a law eliminating the juvenile life sentences, though they were not made retroactive.
But the state looked at 48 cases involving prisoners who received such sentences as teenagers and, after hearing from one of Leonardelli’s sons and others, Johnson was resentenced on Oct. 23. And on Nov. 2, he walked out of the Fremont Correctional Facility a free man.
“No words are going to express how bad I feel about everything happening. There’s absolutely nothing I can do to make it better or give back,” Johnson said. “I made several poor choices that night and I take full responsibility for those actions.”
But now on the outside, Johnson says he’s continuing the work he started in jail to try and prevent other teens from ending up in similar circumstances that he did.
“When you’re involved with somebody losing their life, I feel like it’s my duty and gives my life purpose or meaning in life to come out here, take my story and help all these other kids,” he said. “Every single day of my life, I live with this. And I continue to use this as fuel so there are no more families that go through this kind of ignorance.”