ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — On April 24, 1981, Sylvia Johnson, 35, was found dead in the home she shared with her husband on Parsifal NE in Albuquerque.
Jurors later convicted Reilly Johnson, then 40, of strangling his wife to death. An autopsy found ether in Sylvia Johnson’s system.
Subsequent appeals failed to overturn his conviction and life sentence.
In preparing for his parole board hearing in March 2012, Johnson was accepted through unusual channels into Dismas House, a transitional living facility for former inmates that would have given him a place to stay upon his release.
He also picked up new job skills and earned more than 100 hours of college credit, and he returned to the Catholic Church. His disciplinary record has no indication of a serious infraction, and he has accrued well over two decades of good time in his 30 years. However, lifers are not allowed to put good time toward their sentence until after having served the full 30 years, due to a late 1980s law by the state Legislature.
Johnson also served as an inmate advocate in the 1980s after the Santa Fe State Penitentiary riot, working on behalf of the federal government to identify problems that sparked the deadly riots.
“I’ve taken advantage of every opportunity to make myself valuable to the community I left behind. I believe I am ready for release, but whether I should be released is a decision for the parole board,” Johnson said in a letter from prison.
Doug Rogillio, Sylvia Johnson’s brother, said he and his family intend to drive from California to Santa Fe every two years for as long as is necessary to argue for Johnson’s continued imprisonment.
“He got ‘life,’ and we believe he should stay in prison,” Rogillio said in a recent phone interview. “He took her life, and in that he took a piece of every one of us.”
Rogillio did say that at Johnson’s 2012 hearing, Johnson admitted to having had anger issues, which was “a step” for the family.
During trial, Johnson maintained he was innocent. When asked recently by the Journal if he felt remorse for his crime, Johnson wrote: “In a word, yes.”
During Johnson’s three decades in prison, he had regular contact with Pat Rogers, a prominent New Mexico attorney who represented Johnson in a public records lawsuit.
Rogers said he can see no reason why Johnson shouldn’t be released, and he said the parole board is sending the wrong message to other lifers by not releasing him.
“It would be hard in my estimation to find someone who has taken more steps to better himself,” Rogers said. “It’d be very difficult to imagine more than what Reilly has achieved.
“Looking at Reilly, what is the reward for good behavior?” Rogers added. “I can only imagine it’s a huge negative for the system.”
Johnson is now preparing for his next parole hearing, which should happen in 2014. He’s hoping he’ll have a better chance then, and though he’s largely pessimistic about his chances, that hasn’t stopped him from considering life on the outside.
“I’ve always been a working man. I like work, and I plan to go back to work,” he said in the letter. “For fun, I really miss riding my bicycle.”