Only the grieving sentenced to life without parole


April 17, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

Joseph and Tillie Levenson went to court yesterday to hear what would happen to the man who murdered their son.

They knew something would happen to him. After all, you can't just shoot a guy once in the stomach and twice in the back and walk away scot-free. Not even in Baltimore.

But Joe and Tillie didn't know quite what sentence the killer would get, this being an age in which murder has virtually lost its ability to shock and outrage.

"I'm scared to death," Tillie said. "My niece called and said in Houston they just let 16 first-degree murderers out of prison because they don't have room for them."

"First we wanted life without parole for Aaron's killer," Joseph said. Aaron was their son. He was 30 when he was gunned down last October. "Forget about the death penalty. Nobody gets executed in Maryland anymore. So we wanted life without parole."

But the killer, Jeffrey Lloyd Johnson, agreed to plead guilty in exchange for the prosecution's dropping its request for life without parole.

It was not a bad deal for him. Johnson knows that as long as there is hope for parole, well, anything can happen. He is a young man, 26, and he knows he will be on the streets again some day.

"So now we are hoping for life plus 40 years," Joseph said. "But I don't know. He gets to have a lawyer here. He gets to have witnesses. We don't get anything. We filled out what they call 'impact statements.' That's all we get."

"But it is very hard putting it all down," Tillie said. "Aaron was such a wonderful boy. Always getting us little things. When he was 8 or 9 he bought me one of those fuzzy dogs with the heads that bob. And he said, 'Mom, this is to watch over you.' I have it on my night table to this day. So let me ask you something. Why did Johnson have to give Aaron two more bullets in the back?"

Johnson shot Aaron once in the chest/stomach area, stepped back so Aaron could fall to the ground and then stood over him and pumped two more bullets into his back.

Then he ran away without even taking the $7 in Aaron's wallet.

"He destroyed all of Aaron's major organs," Tillie said. "I was hoping Aaron died instantly from the first shot, but no. He called out for help after the first shot. And then he was shot twice more. Why was that?"

I don't know, I said. I don't know even if the killer knows.

"Look. There," Tillie said. "There he is."

Johnson came into the courtroom in handcuffs and a snappy gray double-breasted suit. He had about a dozen friends and relatives in the courtroom, and he smiled when he saw them.

"See," Joseph said. "Look. He's smiling. He shoots my son and he's smiling."

Johnson was represented in court by Randolph Gregory, who made an eloquent case for him.

"My client had no intention of harming Mr. Levenson," he told Judge Joseph I. Pines. "But things went awry. My client has no juvenile record. He graduated from Southwestern High School with a 79.53 average. He married and maintains a wife and child. He was a delivery and maintenance man for Ms. Desserts at the time of the incident. His grandfather is a minister.

"So why did this incident happen? The only rational explanation is that this was an act of economic desperation and hopelessness. My client earned only $5.50 per hour, and the government has the audacity to charge taxes on that! That is the best explanation, the only explanation, I have."

Gary Schenker, the prosecutor, spoke next. "Day in and day out we see these senseless killings on the street. Why? Why did this happen? I agree it was economics. But it was the greed to have what others have. The attitude today on the street is: 'If you have what I want, I will take it from you. And it doesn't matter if I use a bat, a stick or a gun.' "

Johnson, the killer, was slouched over to one side in his seat. When Schenker finished, Johnson rose to speak, spreading out his hands on the table before him.

"I'm sorry for what happened," he said. "I know how his family is feeling and I know how my family is feeling. And . . . I'm sorry for what happened."

Now, it was Judge Pines' turn. "You have pleaded guilty to felony murder, attempted robbery with a deadly weapon and the use of a handgun in a crime of violence," he said. "You are right when you say you have visited grief not only on the Levenson family, but your own. What you did was callous. To shoot a victim in the stomach and have him fall at your feet is one thing. But to fire two shots into his back is callous and ruthless."

Pines dealt with some technical matters and then said: "This court sentences you to life in prison plus 20 years to be served consecutively."

Johnson listened impassively to the sentence, reached up to the lapels of his suit jacket and readjusted their drape. He was ready. Who knows what the future would bring? Maybe the prisons in Maryland will get so crowded, they will start letting out murderers here.

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