Delaware Teen Originally Sentenced to Die in Prison to Be Released


Photo by Richard Ross

Lawrence Johnson, who was sentenced to die in prison in Delaware for his minor role in a robbery-murder when he was just 16 years old, received a new sentence this week that provides for his release from prison.

Lawrence was 16 when he acted as a lookout for two adult men who killed a gun store owner during a robbery in 1995. Although he was not the triggerman, he was sentenced to two life terms without parole plus 105 years.

Last year, the United States Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama banned mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children. The decision invalidated Mr. Johnson’s sentence.

On Tuesday, Lawrence Johnson pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, robbery, burglary and conspiracy charges, and Wilmington trial judge Charles H. Toliver IV, who said he was never happy with the mandatory sentence he imposed nearly 20 years ago, sentenced him to 20 years.

With credit for good behavior, Mr. Johnson completed that sentence last year, but he will transition through lower levels of incarceration for about six months and be transferred to New York State before being released under supervised probation. Judge Tolliver urged Mr. Johnson, now 34 years old, to “look forward and do something positive in light of your change of fate.”

The family of the victim expressed approval for the new sentence. Thomas Smith’s widow, Nancy Cropper, said she had been bothered by Lawrence Johnson’s sentence ever since it was handed down, and his daughter, Paula Smith, said a sentence of two life terms was not appropriate in light of Mr. Johnson’s role in the crime.

Mr. Johnson collapsed into his chair, speechless, when the judge pronounced his new sentence. After a few moments, he thanked his attorney, prosecutors, the judge, and the Smith family. “It’s been a long time,” he said.