Sentenced to life as teens, they fear getting coronavirus before getting a second chance

This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.

Darnell Johnson long believed that he would die alone in a prison cell. In 1998, a Michigan court sentenced him to life behind bars without the possibility of parole for killing a woman and shooting two others during a botched armed robbery when he was 17, court records show.

Johnson had been in prison for more than a decade when the U.S. Supreme Court issued two rulings, one in 2012 and another in 2016, that said “juvenile lifers” like him must have their sentences reviewed, taking into account that they were not yet adults when they committed their crimes. In many states, hundreds saw their prison terms shortened or were released.

But Johnson and nearly 1,000 others incarcerated since their youth across the United States are still waiting for a court hearing — and now they face a growing fear that they will lose their lives to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, before getting their chance at freedom.

Johnson, 40, who is black, has asthma and hypertension, risk factors for serious complications from the coronavirus. He is incarcerated at the Gus Harrison Correctional Facility in Adrian, Michigan, one of the nation’s worst prison hot spots with more than 725 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Monday.

Image: The Gus Harrison Correctional Facility in Adrian, Mich. (Google Maps)

“All hope of being released is fading away every minute, every hour, every day,” Johnson said via a prison email app. “To have made it to the ‘finish line’ only to possibly die from this virus is that much more frightening.”

The United States is the only country in the world that sends children to prison with no chance of getting out, according to The Sentencing Project, a prison research organization. Roughly 80 percent of juvenile lifers are people of color.

As the pandemic devastates prisons and jails, some governors, parole boards and prosecutors are releasing some prisoners who were serving short sentences for low-level crimes. The rationale is that they are less likely to re-offend, according to public statements by officials.

Juvenile lifers have rarely been mentioned in this conversation.

That omission is misguided, prisoner advocates say. “These are human beings who brain science shows have ‘aged out’ of crime,” said Renée Slajda, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, a legal advocacy organization.

“If you had to pick between people who just got to jail or ones who have decades of good behavior under their belt, which is a safer bet to release?” asked Ashley Nellis, a senior analyst focusing on lifers at The Sentencing Project.

Johnson, for instance, has received just one misconduct ticket during his entire incarceration: in 2001, according to court records. He also scored a “low” risk rating for violence or re-offending on a corrections department-administered risk assessment, the document shows.

Johnson’s good behavior in prison had given him hope that the 2016 Supreme Court decision, Montgomery v. Louisiana, would apply to him. The court ruled that because young people’s brains are still developing, along with their awareness of the consequences of their actions, those who had been sent to adult prison for life for crimes committed as children should get an opportunity to be resentenced — a chance to prove they have been redeemed.

When Johnson heard about the decision, he and friends who also were incarcerated as teens were “slapping each other on the back, saying, ‘We made it!’” he said.

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Yet his dream of freedom has been deferred nearly five years because of court delays and because his prosecutor, who has the ability to grant him a shorter sentence, has been unwilling to do so. At a hearing in December, Johnson will have the chance to challenge the prosecuting attorney’s decision, citing the Supreme Court ruling, says his attorney, Sofia Nelson of Michigan’s State Appellate Defender Office.

Johnson is one of about 200 of Michigan’s more than 350 juvenile lifers who have yet to receive a new sentence, according to court and prison records. That is the most of any state.

Michigan is also third only to Ohio and Texas with more than 3,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases among incarcerated people, according to The Marshall Project’s tracker.

Johnson said he has watched his prison friends catch the virus and worries he could be next.

In an email, Robert Holmes, who is incarcerated alongside Johnson and also committed his crime as a teen, described the agonizing ups and downs of their predicament. “To come this far, to become this obsessed with hope again, completely childlike in its intensity, to work so hard to change … and now COVID-19 threatens to make sure no one may ever see those changes,” he said.

In interviews with nearly a dozen juvenile lifers across the country, they said that despite becoming adults in the merciless environment of prison, they still yearned to grow and learn. But having lived decades in such a physically and psychologically unhealthy place, research shows, they are also particularly susceptible to stress, diabetes and high blood pressure, and thus COVID-19.

Related: Just a small fraction of prisoners have been sent home because of the coronavirus pandemic. Many others lack legal help and connections to make their case.

In Pennsylvania, where far more juvenile lifers have gotten out of prison under the Supreme Court rulings than in Michigan, a recent study found that only 1.14 percent of those released have since been convicted of any new crime.

To be sure, if you are sentenced to life, you were likely convicted of taking a life or being involved in such a grievous crime. Johnson shot three people at a laundromat in Union, Michigan, killing one of them, Diane VanStrum, 68, during a robbery attempt with a teenage friend that “shook the local area to its core,” according to Johnson’s prosecutor, Victor A. Fitz.

In a series of emails, Johnson expressed remorse and sorrow for VanStrum’s family as well as the other victims and a witness to the shooting who was a child at the time. “Will such words take away the pain from them, their family and friends that I caused, the ripple effect experienced by all?” he wrote. “NO!! Absolutely not!!”

Fitz, the Cass County, Michigan, prosecutor, said in an interview that Johnson and his friend were involved in gang activity and had planned a string of robberies. He also said the victims have expressed to him that while they may not hate Johnson, they live in fear of him getting out.

One person Johnson shot has lifelong brain damage, causing cognitive difficulties, Fitz said. The other was so emotionally scarred that she has become a recluse.

“All life is valuable including Mr. Johnson’s, that’s what I’ve always believed in my heart, but as far as who should get the priority here, it’s the victims and the public,” he said.

Yet, the Supreme Court has ruled that crimes committed by children are most often born of childhood trauma and teens’ impulse to take risks in front of their peers.

When Johnson was a toddler in South Bend, Indiana, he watched his father wave a gun at his mother and beat her, often leaving her with broken jaws, missing teeth and black eyes, according to family members and his attorney’s description of a childhood history report to be filed in court. At age 11, he saw his older brother get shot and nearly killed in their front yard. The family often had no running water or electricity, and as a teen Johnson drove his mom to work — at a laundromat, among other jobs — on a tandem bike, according to his lawyer. (Fitz said he was not aware of this history.)

Johnson then turned to petty crime to make money, eventually commiting the fatal robbery.

When he first went to prison, he says, he awoke every morning thinking he could hear the sound of his mother’s voice before realizing he was in his cell.

Nearly two decades later, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the Montgomery v. Louisiana decision that once-juvenile prisoners like Johnson “must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption.” If it did not, he wrote, “their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.”

Johnson and his friends’ hopefulness had always been abstract; suddenly, after the Supreme Court decisions, they were making plans about where they would live as free adults and what jobs they would get. But he also “felt like a child that had done something wrong and went hiding from my mother — part of me wanted to just stay in prison rather than face … those that I hurt,” Johnson said.

Still, he now had an outside chance to see his mother, who has had multiple strokes and requires round-the-clock care, according to Johnson’s brother.

Following the Supreme Court cases, the Michigan Legislature passed a law requiring that prosecutors take less than six months to seek to re-sentence juvenile lifers to between 25 and 60 years in prison, with parole eligibility starting earlier. If they wanted to seek a life sentence again, they would have to prove in court that the person was completely beyond redemption.

But many prosecuting attorneys in Michigan, with a few exceptions, decided to take that lengthier approach, according to court records and reporting by the Detroit Free Press. The state soon became a national outlier in defying the high court’s doctrine that such a prison sentence, for a child, should be exceedingly rare.

There are still four Michigan prisoners incarcerated for life for crimes they committed as 14-year-olds. Thirty-three other lifers went in at age 15. Many began their sentences in the 1970s, according to a corrections department database.

And now hundreds of people around them are testing positive for the coronavirus.

“These are people who walked into adult prison as children — and they are saying that what they are facing right now is more scary than that,” said Jacqueline Williams, an advocate for incarcerated people for the American Friends Service Committee’s Michigan Criminal Justice Program. “I am hearing their voices breaking. I’ve never heard that before.”

Related: “I was panicking worrying about him,” one mother said after her 17-year-old son tested positive for COVID-19.

For Michigan’s juvenile lifers, the recent death of William Garrison looms particularly large, they said in interviews.

After serving 44 years behind bars for a crime he committed as a teen, Garrison died last month of COVID-19 — just 24 days before his scheduled release date.

Yusef Qualls, a juvenile lifer imprisoned a quarter-century ago as a 16-year-old — for being the driver, not the shooter, in a homicide case — says he was good friends with Garrison. They talked regularly about all the things that, having been locked up as children, they had never done: drive a car (legally), go to a nice restaurant on their own, pay insurance bills. “Yeah, we even looked forward to doing that,” Qualls said by phone.

He last saw his friend in the chow hall. Garrison had no appetite, and was dead within days.

Qualls says he has never seen himself dying in prison, despite his life sentence. “I’m still holding onto hope even though hope is dangerous,” he said. “Every day is a day I could learn I get my hearing. Every day is also a day that I could die.”

A spokeswoman for the Wayne County prosecutor in Detroit, where Qualls’ case is pending, said that “every effort has been made” to ensure that he and other juvenile lifers receive a new sentence as required by the Supreme Court. “We even completed one resentencing hearing remotely during this pandemic,” she said.

Michigan’s juvenile lifers aren’t the only ones waiting.

In Louisiana, roughly 80 such prisoners have not yet had resentencing hearings, due partly to prosecutors’ adamancy and ongoing court fights but also to funding shortages for attorneys to take these cases, legal advocacy groups say. The state’s public defender system is funded largely by traffic tickets, which have dried up amid the lockdown, and now lawyers say they must tell their juvenile lifer clients that they can no longer defend them.

“The clients are almost comforting us, saying that as juvenile lifers they just expect to gain hope and then lose it,” Slajda of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights said.

One was set to go to court in March for the first time in 30 years — but the hearing was canceled due to the pandemic. “He said, ‘If I have to die here, I get it. I just want my chance,’” Slajda said.

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Johnson says that because of his crime he sometimes feels unworthy of hope, as though the coronavirus could inflict the punishment he deserves: to die in prison.

But that can’t be right, he says he reminds himself. He is a grown-up now. He no longer believes it takes violence to solve problems. He instead believes in taking responsibility for his actions, admitting when he is wrong and going about correcting that wrong. “Most of all,” he said, he wants to “live a quiet life and be at peace with others.”

Before his crime, Johnson says, he did not comprehend any of this. “I am not that same dumb teenager, nor do I desire to hurt or cause harm to anyone else,” he said. “I do not have anything to give except these few words. There is nothing else that I possess.”