Reilly Johnson asked a judge for a little help during a recent court hearing.
“This is the first time I’ve been in oral argument,” said Johnson, an inmate at the state prison in Santa Rosa who had petitioned the court to overrule the New Mexico Parole Board’s repeated refusals in the past decade to set him free.
He has been denied parole four times since he became eligible in 2010 after serving 30 years of a life sentence for killing his wife.
This month marks the 40th anniversary of her death.
“Can you give me an idea what I should do?” Johnson asked the judge. “Should I reread my case? I don’t want to bore the court.
“I’m almost 80 years old, and I don’t hear very good,” he added. “If I say I can’t hear you, I’m not being a smart aleck. I’m just having a hard time hearing you.”
Johnson was sentenced to life in prison in 1982 after he was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of 34-year-old Sylvia Johnson on April 24, 1981, at their home in Albuquerque.
The couple had been married only four months, according to Sylvia Johnson’s younger sister, Deborah Rogillio Armstrong.
“He was a bum,” Armstrong said of Reilly Johnson. “She was stunning and smart but did not make good choices in men.”
Johnson told police he’d gone to bed next to his sleeping wife and awoke in the morning to find her dead, according to court records.
He claimed his wife had died from an asthma attack, the records show, but an autopsy later revealed she had high levels of ether in her system and bruises on her face and neck “that would be caused by the fingertips of a person holding an ether mask over her face.”
Sylvia Johnson’s cause of death was listed as strangulation.
The meaning of ‘life’
In New Mexico, a person convicted of murder can be sentenced to life, which means they must serve 30 years before becoming eligible for parole, or life without parole — a sentence created in 2009 to replace the death penalty. The latter sentence means an inmate must remain in prison until they die.
Reilly argued in his petition the state parole board treats both sentences the same.
“They are treating me as if I had a life sentence without parole,” he said during the recent court hearing, when he failed to convince Wilson to find the board’s denials of his parole unlawfully arbitrary and capricious.
“Our constitution actually addresses the purpose of corrections,” Johnson said. “It says I have a right to rehabilitation. They say prison should be reformatory.”
Johnson, who has been described by an advocate as a model prisoner, wrote in his petition that parole board members have paid scant attention to evidence of his efforts to reform himself and seem to have taken the position that anyone sentenced to life in prison should never be released.
“If all you are judging me by is my crime … rehabilitation ceases to be a part of that,” he said. “I’ve studied the law the best I can, and I just don’t know what is expected of me. I’m really at a loss.”
Neither parole board Director Cisco McSorley nor interim Chairman Abram Anaya returned calls seeking comment.
Former parole board Chairwoman Sheila Lewis said in a recent interview she believes Johnson’s release is long overdue.
“He absolutely should not be there any longer,” Lewis said. “He committed a crime, and he paid a penalty for it. But he is a model prisoner and has been denied parole for absolutely no valid reason.”
Lewis didn’t preside over any of Johnson’s parole hearings but said she got to know him while she was working as an appellate defender for the state. She said his case is a perfect example of why parole laws need to be reformed.
“Frankly, it was cases like his that inspired me to apply to be on the parole board,” said Lewis, who served from August 2019 to March 2020, when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham decided not to renew her term.
Lewis thinks her time on the board was cut short because of her opinion that more people serving life sentences should be released on parole.
Fit for release?
Johnson petitioned the state District Court to review his case in 2018 after he’d been denied parole in 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2018. It took him almost three years to get someone to listen to his argument.
Former state District Judge Gregory Shaffer initially refused to hear Johnson’s petition because it had been filed more than 30 days after his parole hearing.
Johnson appealed, and the state Court of Appeals ruled in 2019 his status as a prisoner justified the late filing.
He finally argued his case by phone March 8 from prison.
Johnson told the judge he is an ideal candidate for release.
“I did engage in rehab,” he said, “[I didn’t] lay in a free bed and eat free food and become a dope addict.”
According to his petition:
- He worked every day of his incarceration and has eschewed drugs and alcohol for more than 35 years. He earned an associate degree in humanities and is close to finishing degrees in paralegal studies and nursing.
- He sought out classes on corrective thinking, stress and anger management; led a meditation group at the state prison in Grants; and started an inmate-operated volunteer fire department at the prison in Los Lunas, which once helped save a portion of the facility’s kitchen.
- One of his greatest accomplishments, he said, is the 18 years he spent advocating for inmates in segregation and those who are mentally ill as a prisoner representative in the ongoing litigation over the Duran consent decree, a legal agreement on prison reforms.
- He co-founded the first veterans support group inside the state prison system.
- Between 1991 and 1994, he wrote a column for The New Mexican called Pen Pal about life behind bars.
- He voluntarily donates 15 percent of his monthly income to a fund for crime victims.
The only black mark on Johnson’s prison record — one he thinks cost him parole in 2016 — was a charge of engaging or attempting to engage in a personal or romantic relationship with a staff member. Johnson wrote in his petition the charge was related to his acceptance of a gift in 2015 of a “day-old leftover Allsup’s burrito” from a work supervisor.
If he’s not fit to be let out, Johnson argued, who is?
Wilson issued a written order in the case April 2, affirming the parole board’s 2018 decision on Johnson’s request for parole. The order said the judge had found the board’s rejection of his release was not arbitrary and capricious.
The judge declined to rule on the board’s previous decisions.
‘Law needs to change’
“I think his only hope is for us to change to the law,” Lewis said of Johnson. “Because under the law, what is happening is legal. Nobody is violating the law now, but the law needs to change.”
As it stands, inmates serving a life sentence are granted the right to parole hearings after 30 years, but the parole board does not have to grant their release.
Lewis said the factors the board considers — the crime an inmate committed, aggravating circumstances, whether a deadly weapon was used — focus more on what occurred in the past than on an inmate’s progress.
The board should be balancing the public’s safety against the value of human life, she said, but it generally places more value on the life already lost than that of the person still living — partially out of deference to victim’s families.
“It’s understandable,” Lewis said. “But it’s not fair. That life has been lost, and the scale has been balanced by the 30-something years he has served. He paid the price.”
Dianna Luce, a district attorney in Southern New Mexico’s 5th Judicial District and president of the New Mexico District Attorney’s Association, was the first prosecutor to seek and obtain a sentence of life without parole for a defendant after the state repealed the death penalty. She said prosecutors should seek that enhanced sentencing if they feel a defendant should never be released from prison.
Still, she said she believes the system for reviewing parole petitions works. She noted some lifers have been released by the board.
The parole board did not respond to calls seeking information for this story.
New Mexico lawmakers passed a bill in 2019 that would have required the board to grant parole to lifers who have served 30 years or to issue specific findings — provided to the inmate in writing — on why the person should not be released.
Now the board simply has to check a box indicating an overarching reason for the denial.
The board has checked three boxes in every one of Johnson’s denials, according to court records:
- The nature and seriousness of the offense.
- Parole would depreciate the seriousness of the crime.
- Parole is not in the best interest of society or the inmate at this time.
Johnson argued those reasons are too vague.
Lujan Grisham vetoed the 2019 legislation at the request of state prosecutors who had argued in a letter it would have given the government less power over dangerous criminals.
Lujan Grisham wrote in her veto message the bill was built on “sound policy considerations,” but “some of the key players in the criminal justice system were not included in the legislative debates.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, one of the bill’s four sponsors, said at the time the prosecutors’ letter was disingenuous at best.
On Friday, Chasey said, “We are looking at a new day here, and a lot of what is claimed in that letter, the exact opposite is true.”
Luce said prosecutors didn’t agree with some of the bill’s changes, such as removing language requiring the board to look at specific factors, including whether a deadly weapon was used in the crime, when considering parole for a lifer.
The bill would have instead required the board to consider “all pertinent information” concerning the inmate.
Luce also said she didn’t agree with the bill’s requirement for the board to provide written reasons for a denial. That would make it difficult to get volunteers to serve, she said.
“Either you are trusting the process or you’re not,” Luce said. “If you don’t trust the process, we should create a new one.”
Several probation and parole bills have been introduced in the Legislature since Lujan Grisham’s veto, but none has passed, and none of the failed bills has proposed the same types of changes to the parole board.
“I guess they decided that was a fight they didn’t want to fight,” Luce said.
Lewis said she felt the governor might have been misinformed about the bill and led to believe it would have forced the board to grant parole to anyone who had served 30 years.
Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for the governor, said that was not the case.
“It would be inaccurate to characterize the governor’s 2019 veto as stemming from a misunderstanding of the bill,” Sackett wrote in an email last week.
“As was outlined in the veto message … the late-arriving concerns from the office of the attorney general and district attorneys made clear a necessary consensus around the aims of the legislation had not been achieved, and the governor … still believes that collaboration between those groups and others is and would be essential to any reform effort.”
‘We will never forget’
In an interview Thursday, Sylvia Johnson’s sister said nothing could convince her that Johnson should be set free.
“Honestly, he has caused so much devastation to this family,” Armstrong said. “When it is a calculated, planned-out murder like this, there should be no excuse that he should ever be able to get out of prison.
“I wish New Mexico had the death penalty,” she added. “How much money has it cost the taxpayers and myself to support a man who killed my sister and in turn devastated my parents and put them in an early grave?”
Only in recent years has Johnson expressed any remorse for the killing, she said.
Her brother has forgiven Johnson, Armstrong said, “but we will never forget.”
“I look at it this way,” she said. “He killed our sister. There is no chance she is eligible for parole and can come back to life.
“If this had happened in Texas, he would not be here today.”