JONESBORO, Ark. – Seven years after taking part in a schoolyard ambush where four students and a teacher were killed, Mitchell Johnson (search) will walk out of a federal detention center Thursday.
His impending release has this northeast Arkansas (search) town on edge, and many still question the fairness of releasing Johnson on his 21st birthday because of a now-closed loophole in the law.
Mitchell Wright, whose wife, Shannon, was killed in the attack, said he has tried to explain Johnson's release to his son, who was 2 when his mother died.
"He's told me, 'I don't think it's right he gets to go home to his momma and I only get to see my momma on videos,'" Wright said.
Student Whitney Irving (search) was shot in the back, but survived. Although she has since graduated from high school, married and had a child, the attack remains a part of her everyday life.
"A lot of people are really scared to this very day and we have not forgotten anything," she said.
On March 24, 1998, Johnson, then 13, and Andrew Golden (search), then 11, stole high-powered rifles from Golden's grandfather. Dressed in camouflage, they waited in the woods behind the school until the lunch hour, when Golden ran into a hallway to trigger a fire alarm.
As classmates and teachers filed out of the buildings, Johnson and Golden opened fire. Children ducked or scrambled while teachers tried to herd pupils back into the building. Four students and Shannon Wright, an English teacher, were killed; 10 others were injured.
The Jonesboro shootings came amid a number of schoolyard assaults in which teenagers attacked their classmates. Thirteen died, along with two shooters, at Columbine, Colo., a year after Jonesboro. Luke Woodham killed two students in Pearl, Miss., in October 1997 after killing his mother, and Kip Kinkel killed two teenagers and wounded more than 20 at Springfield, Ore., after killing his parents in May 1998.
Woodham is in prison for life; Kinkel is serving nearly 112 years.
Because of a since-closed loophole in Arkansas' juvenile justice system, the state had no way to hold Johnson and Golden beyond their 18th birthdays. Federal prosecutors used weapons laws to keep the boys locked up until age 21. Golden is scheduled to be freed in 2007.
Dale Haas, the sheriff at the time of the shootings, questions whether justice has been served as Johnson walks free.
"How could anyone think they would be rehabilitated?" Haas asked.
With some residents also angry over the sentences, Craighead County Sheriff Jack McCann wants to offer protection to Johnson's mother, Gretchen Woodard, who still lives near the school where the shootings took place.
"I want to prepare her that, if he's coming back here, there are going to be some problems — to what extent I don't know," McCann said. "We are going to be very open with her about what could happen and do whatever we can to help them.
"Whether anybody agrees with it or not, he has served his sentence," McCann said.
Woodard has said that her son will not return to Arkansas when he is released from prison in Memphis, Tenn. She said he wants to become a minister and hinted he will move at least a day's drive from Jonesboro and enroll in college.
Woodard said her son dwells on what happened.
"He'd give anything. He'd give his life 100 times over to turn this thing back. The best thing, I really believe, the best thing to do is give him a chance," she told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "Let him get out there and spread his wings and help other people."