Middle School Gunman Eligible for Release

One of the gunmen in the 1998 shooting spree at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas, is being released from prison. Mitchell Johnson was 13 when he and his friend Andrew Golden opened fire at the school, killing five people. Now he's 21, and eligible for release. Alex Chadwick speaks with Craighead County Sheriff Jack McCann about Johnson's release.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Seven years ago, Jonesboro, Arkansas, was transformed by one of those horrifying school shootings. And today, the community is roiled again by the event because one of the shooters is getting out of prison a lot sooner than most people would like. He's Mitchell Johnson, just turning 21 years old. He was 13 when he and 11-year-old Andrew Golden pulled a fire alarm at the West Side Middle School, waited for teachers and fellow students to gather outside and then fired into the crowd. Four students and one teacher were killed; many others were wounded, including 11-year-old Whitney Irving. Here she is shortly afterwards.

WHITNEY IRVING (West Side Middle School Student): What they did was really bad, and--if I had to forgive them, I wouldn't because they've killed a teacher and four girls and they injured me and my friends, and they just broke a lot of people's hearts.

CHADWICK: At the time of the shooting, Arkansas law prevented the state from holding the shooters past their 18th birthdays. The two boys were placed in federal custody under weapons charges until age 21. That's what Mitchell Johnson is today; he's getting out. We're joined by the Craighead County sheriff, Jack McCann.

Sheriff McCann, welcome to DAY TO DAY, and what kind of impact is this release going to have. Is he coming back to Jonesboro?

Sheriff JACK McCANN (Craighead County, Arkansas): I've visited with his mother on the phone one day last week. She assured me that he is not coming back to Jonesboro or Craighead County.

CHADWICK: Still, how do people there feel?

Sheriff McCANN: Very angry. A lot of anger, a lot of frustration. It's a short term that they have been in prison. No one feels that's fair, and I think the other big thing about this incident is, you know, neither one of these boys has ever made a statement. If they would ever at least try to explain, I think that would help a lot.

CHADWICK: His mother is a woman named Gretchen Woodard. She says that he has told her he's very sorry for this incident and wants to become a minister. Do people know that there?

Sheriff McCANN: That's been publicized here. Yes, sir. By what he has been saying, what we're getting from the media, you know, hopefully he has been rehabilitated. You know, if he becomes a minister, that would be great. We'll just have to wait and see. Of course, in my opinion and in most people's opinion in this area, he should be in prison for at least the rest of his life.

CHADWICK: There are news reports that you've offered protection for his mother. She still lives near the Middle School. Why have you done that?

Sheriff McCANN: If he's not here, it's not a problem. Mrs. Woodard has two other sons. They've not had any problems since the shooting. But if he's here, then there would have been some problems.

CHADWICK: Are you having an community meetings or anything to try to get people together and talk about their feelings, maybe try to make things better in some way?

Sheriff McCANN: No, sir. I think the general consensus is let's just leave it alone, you know, and just let time run its course.

CHADWICK: You most regard this as a grave miscarriage of justice.

Sheriff McCANN: Absolutely. You know, there's a lot of words used to describe what happened out there--homicide, murder. I call this a slaughter, and it's just hard for me to conceive someone can kill five people, wound 10 others and do seven years in prison. He has by law fulfilled his obligations. He served every day in prison that he possibly could; the law's wrong. But it is the law, and everybody's just going to have to abide by that.

CHADWICK: Jack McCann, sheriff at Craighead County, Arkansas. Sheriff McCann, thank you for speaking with us on DAY TO DAY.

Sheriff McCANN: You're very welcome. You have a good day.

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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