Jeff and Jenny Johnson in their Denver apartment.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

Freedom is a new concept for Jeff Johnson. 

After nearly 25 years behind bars, Johnson was released from prison on Nov. 2, 2018. He was only 17 when he was convicted of felony murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in 1995. 

Now, he’s 42.

Johnson is the beneficiary of a growing body of research that finds juveniles don't always understand the consequences of their actions, and that the juvenile brain isn't fully developed.

The change of opinion cumulated when the Supreme Court ruled a few years ago that sentences of life without parole for juveniles is cruel and unusual punishment.

So, Johnson and other juvenile lifers like him across the country are being released early. On the outside, they're facing adult life for the first time.

“I understand being angry. I understand being hard on crime. I get it. I totally get it. But to sentence kids to life ain't the answer,” Johnson said.

When he was sentenced as a teenager, Johnson doesn’t even think he realized the magnitude of the consequence at hand. He remembers turning to his lawyer and asking what the sentence would be. Johnson’s lawyer smirked back before giving the grim answer: Life without parole.

Johnson didn’t understand what that meant.

“Basically ‘til you die,” he remembers the lawyer replying.

 Johnson rolled the thought around his mind.

“‘Til I die?”

Beginnings

Today, Johnson has a new apartment in Denver. The dryer and dishwasher rumble along in the background as two puppies scamper around a black leather couch.

 Until now, he’s never paid rent or other bills. But he’s figuring it out.

Johnson struggled in school. He was placed in special education courses early on in elementary school, but his dyslexia wasn't diagnosed until later on. By the time Johnson hit high school, he said he spent most days ditching classes, smoking weed and getting into trouble. But he was never violent, he said.

“Yes, I smoked weed. Yes I was a class clown. But that was about the extent of it,” Johnson said.

Home wasn’t much better. Johnson and his father, while they have a “tremendous relationship” now, did not get along.

“Growing up I think my dad and my relationship was a little bit poor. I think he’ll even tell you he wasn't the dad he probably should’ve been, could’ve been,” Johnson said.

He ended up in a group foster home, and that’s where his troubles truly began.

‘I Don’t Even Know How To Explain It’

One day, Johnson was hanging out with a guy from the group home, but they weren’t particularly close. 

The two ended up in a parking garage in Aurora, where the guy told Johnson he needed money and wanted to steal a car. He singled out a Jaguar in the lot. 

There's still some dispute about what unfolded next. But evidence backs up Johnson's account that he witnessed the murder and didn't join in the violence.

When the guy from the group home first approached the victim as he headed toward his car, Johnson thought they were just wrestling. But then the victim was pushed up against a concrete pillar.

“When he did, I realized the whole front of his shirt was just saturated in blood,” Johnson said.

Everything slowed down. Johnson remembers watching, seeing everything, but his mind not being able to process the scene in front of him. 

When another man walked into the lot, Johnson tried to wave him down and get help. But the man ran, probably afraid of getting hurt himself, Johnson assumes. The two fled the scene and were later arrested.

The victim was John Leonardelli, a 55-year-old insurance broker. He died from his injuries. 

Johnson remembers waiting at the Arapahoe County jail in a pod with other juveniles like him who were charged as adults. 

“I always heard the rumor that you basically had to be facing 60 years or more to be in this pod,” Johnson said. “I just saw a lot of hopelessness in there, to where these kids that are already feeling like they’re in a hopeless situation, all those feelings were just compounded by the environment that they had us living in.”

Johnson was convicted of felony murder, meaning the murder happened while another crime was being committed.

‘Everybody Got A Life Sentence’

In the juvenile pod, Johnson was lucky. He was tall, and that kept other kids from bothering him. 

But he wasn't so lucky once he was transferred to the jail's adult section. He was put in a cell with two large men, who beat him to “toughen” him up.

“To some degree it was torturous. You couldn’t go talk to nobody. I remember just getting beat up all the time,” Johnson said.

Things didn't get better when Johnson was later transferred to a prison in Ordway, Colorado. 

He narrowly escaped getting raped. He tried to kill himself with a razor. He got addicted to heroin. Johnson spent six and a half years in solitary confinement. It was in that rock bottom of depression and pain that a conversation with his grandmother changed his trajectory.

On a phone call one day, Johnson’s grandmother told him: “Everybody got a life sentence, we’re just gonna do it in different places.”

“It took a little while before it resonated in me how profound it was,” Johnson said. “And I realized, you’re right, I’m not gonna allow whether I live on the streets or whether I live in prison to define who I am. Nor will it define if I’m going to find a good or bad life. I just realized, I’m going to change the prison, I'm just gonna change it.”

Johnson got involved in the Shape Up program, where young people in trouble with the law could come to visit prison and talk to inmates. The idea was to show kids that prison isn’t where they wanted to be. Johnson ended up running the program. Johnson also joined a restorative justice program.  

After the Supreme Court ruled that life without parole for juveniles was unconstitutional, Johnson’s history of good behavior set him on the process of getting resentenced.

Johnson had no illusions about what it would be like to live in the outside world. He followed the news, and saw how miserable the prison staffers could be with their free lives.

But Johnson would have someone by his side on the outside.

Jenny

While working on the restorative justice program in prison, Johnson met a counselor who was taking part. Her name is Jenny.

The two started talking on the phone. They fell in love.

When Johnson was released, they got married. 

“The situation is so unique,” Jenny said. “I wish we could go get a book on how to do this. But I think we're trailblazing.”

Jenny works at a rehab center doing case management. She's also working on her addictions counselor license and mental health license. 

The two knew marriage was a gamble. 

“It was a huge risk for us. When we got together, there still was no definite that he would be coming home,” Jenny said. “So to have that hanging over the beginning of a relationship is tough.”

It’s also difficult for Jenny to not feel like she may be holding Jeff back, forcing him to act 42 right out of the gate and not like the 17, 18, 21-year-olds and other young ages he never got to truly experience while in prison.

But they’re working on it. The Johnsons are getting used to their new life together. Right now, Jenny Johnson is the sole breadwinner while Jeff looks for a job. He's been talking to a lot of people, figuring out next steps. For now, he's taking care of the apartment and the puppies. Jenny doesn’t mind.

“I think he's a good Mr. Dad. The laundry is always done, the dishes are done when I get home,” Jenny said.

Jeff wants to get going, though. He would ideally like to work with young people to keep them out of the prison system. It frustrates him going from a leader who was helping others in the prison to being in limbo in the outside world. 

“I think that’s one of the biggest struggles I’ve had. Just feeling like I don’t belong, I don’t really have a lot of purpose and meaning out here yet,” Jeff said.

Jeff also feels a responsibility to his victim. 

“You know, he lost his life by this situation. My story is his life,” Jeff said “If I come out here and I’m not making the impact I’m able to make and that I’m able to create, that’s disrespecting his legacy.”

The sense of uselessness has triggered anxiety attacks for Jeff. He works through them with Jenny. She helps him be patient with a changed, faster-paced world. Texting still baffles Jeff. Jenny doesn’t mind being his anchor.

“My job, I think, is to give him a dose of reality. I think that I reality check him a lot of the time. I think that he’s in such a rush to just be this huge impact on the world. I think he forgets that there’s a lot of value in the transition for him,” Jenny said.

“Out here is a completely different ball game than in there. It’s important for him to not put too much pressure on himself to have to do all of these things and be this person. I think coming out here and being a good person is making an impact."