The attack was surprisingly cold-blooded: On March 24, 1998, two boys from the Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Ark., set off the fire alarm, hid outside, and with guns ready, shot their classmates as they streamed out.
Those shots killed four students and a teacher and wounded 10 others.
Seven years later, Mitchell Johnson, who fired some of the fatal rounds, finished serving his sentence. Johnson walked out of jail after serving seven years — and survivors of that shooting are wondering if justice was served.
Whitney Irving, who, as a 6th grader, was wounded seven years ago, says Johnson is out much too soon. “It was kind of a shock,” says Irving. “Even though I knew it was going to happen, it’s like hurt and anger. Probably the most hurt in my life.”
Because Johnson was 13 at the time, he could be tried only as a juvenile and was ordered held until his 21st birthday. That came Thursday.
Colby Brooks led his classmates outside when that fire alarm sounded, and says Johnson’s release isn’t fair. “He killed five people, injured 15,” says Brooks. “He basically emotionally scarred and wounded 300 kids and a whole community.”
America was rocked by a string of fatal shootings at public schools that included Jonesboro, leading to nationwide changes in the way children are protected in the classroom.
Now, in the eyes of the law, Mitchell Johnson has no criminal record. He could even legally, if he chose to, buy a gun.
“If you’re a juvenile who commits a serious violent crime, you should lose your right to be able to purchase a weapon,” insists gun control advocate Peter Hamm.
Arkansas has since changed its law, allowing young offenders to be punished first as juveniles and then transferred to adult prison once they turn 18.
But Jason Ziedenberg, an advocate for the juvenile system, says Mitchell Johnson has served long enough in a system designed to rehabilitate. “That’s a far better impact on public safety than having him come out of prison 10 years, 15 years from now, without any chance of re-integrating in the way that we’d want,” says Ziedenberg.
Johnson’s parents aren’t saying where he’ll go now that he’s out. But his mother says it won’t be Jonesboro.
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