In Jonesboro, Arkansas, Mitchell Johnson pleads guilty to the Jonesboro schoolyard massacre on his 14th birthday, and Andrew Golden, age 12, is convicted. Both boys had been charged with five counts of murder and 10 counts of battery for the March 24 shooting that left four schoolmates and a teacher dead and 10 others wounded. Juvenile Court Judge Ralph Wilson Jr. sentenced them to the maximum penalty allowed by law–confinement to a juvenile center, perhaps until they turned 21. The judge, who declared during sentencing that “here the punishment will not fit the crime,” had rejected a plea of temporary insanity made by Golden.
During the trial, prosecutors had recounted step-by-step how, on March 24, the boys took a van from Mitchell’s home, guns from Andrew’s grandfather’s house, and then went to the Westside Middle School dressed in camouflage. Andrew pulled a fire alarm in the school to flush classmates and teachers outside and then ran to a patch of woods 75 yards away, where he met Mitchell. As the students and teachers filed out, the boys opened fire. After the massacre, they fled into the woods toward their van but were captured by police before they could escape.
By Arkansas law at the time, juvenile offenders could not be held in adult prisons and thus were traditionally released on their 18th birthday. In addition, unlike convicted adults, juvenile offenders were also allowed to own guns after being paroled. In the aftermath of the tragedy, Arkansas changed its laws so that child murderers can be imprisoned after the age of 21. In 1999, Arkansas bought a facility that enabled the state to keep Johnson and Golden in jail until their 21st birthdays. Johnson was freed in 2005; Golden was released in 2007. Neither has any criminal record. The Jonesboro massacre was the worst in a series of deadly school shootings that occurred between October 1997 and 1998. However, just over a year later, on April 20, 1999, a murderous rampage by two students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, left 13 dead and 23 injured.