The Full Story – By Jackie Huie – April 1, 2016
Incarcerated since April of 1980, Michael Johnson (#159608) is serving a parolable life sentence for the death of high school classmate, Sue Ellen Machemer. Both were in 11th grade at Lakeshore High School, Stevensville, Michigan.
Sue Ellen was a sweet and popular 16-year old and a devoted Christian. According to her family, her struggles with self-esteem had noticeably begun to diminish as she discovered she was actually good at things she enjoyed. She was a member of the Lakeshore High School Pom Pom squad, Flag Corp and had matured in dance, which she had been studying since a young age. Headed in the opposite direction, was Michael Johnson – a quiet 120 pound 17-year old who kept only a few close friends. Crushed beneath the weight of a shattered sense of self-esteem, Michael felt like a bully-magnet for most of his life. When he was 16, he was publicly humiliated when his 11th grade yearbook came back with hurtful endearments, like “to a little fag.” Not long after, Michael landed in the Berrien County Juvenile Center for 3 months. When he returned home and back to Lakeshore High School to finish the school year, things were not the same. High school experiences could not have been more different for two teenagers trying to find their way.
The paths of the teenagers tragically crossed around noon on Thursday, April 3, 1980. Returning from a doctors’ appointment, Sue Ellen was tending to her car that had run out of gas just yards from the Lakeshore High School parking lot entrance. The entrance was the same location where Michael was exiting to “skip school” for the first time during his lunch period. Originally planning to leave school with two friends, Michael left the school alone when his friends inadvertently decided to stay in school out of fear of getting in trouble. According to Michael’s friends and high school counselor, Mr. Humes, the only thing on Michael’s mind on April 3 was skipping school at lunch. Just one day prior, Michael had been in Hume’s office talking about his dream to become a pilot.
Twenty minutes after Sue Ellen and Michael connected near the Lakeshore High School parking lot, a teenager was spotted walking toward Lakeshore High School, a mile away. Reportedly walking strangely, “as though he had no shoe strings” in his shoes, which appeared to be flopping about, he was identified by a passerby as looking like Michael Johnson. Later that day, 2.5 miles away, Sue Ellen Machemer’s car was discovered along a two-track dirt road. In a ditch nearby was Sue Ellen, hands tied with shoestrings. She had drowned.
On Friday, April 4, detectives questioned Michael Johnson. On the following Monday, April 7, 1980, Michael was called back to the Berrien County Sheriff’s Department to meet with detectives. After hours of intensive questioning without an attorney or parent present, Michael provided a full written confession. Months later, through plea bargain arrangement, Michael Johnson pled guilty to the 2nd Degree Murder of Sue Ellen Machemer. Berrien County Circuit Court Judge Julian Hughes sentenced Michael to parolable life. In a subsequent conversation with court appointed counsel, Judge Hughes stated that he sentenced Michael to “parolable” life to allow for a “better opportunity for release,” rather than a longer term of years sentence. While Michigan State Law allows parolable lifers the opportunity for parole consideration after 10 years, a life sentence in 1980 (10-16 years with good behavior) had different meaning than it does today, as does what is constitutional in the incarceration of juveniles (juvenile incarceration for life is now unconstitutional).
As of 2016, Michael Johnson has served 36 consecutive years in prison. He has earned the respect of Michigan Department of Corrections officers, earned a college degree, earned Paralegal Certification, successfully completed and deemed a leader in the Michigan Department of Corrections required Intensive Group Psychotherapy Program, become a member of various Warden’s Forums, been the Editor of “The Factor,” an award-winning prison newspaper, produced a prison broadcast series, became an artist, created incentive programs for inmates, has held several jobs and has been involved in a host of other activities and accomplishments. A model prisoner with an impeccable 36-year track record, Michael is currently working in a prison library and participates in a suicide prevention detail where he sits up all night with suicidal prisoners housed in segregation. It is considered a high honor to be selected for this program.
In 2009, Warden Shirlee Harry, of Muskegon Correctional Facility, personally submitted to Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, an Application for Pardon or Commutation of Sentence on behalf of Michael Johnson. In 2010, the Commutation request was denied with no explanation. In 2002, 2009 and 2016, Michael Johnson was evaluated by Michigan based Forensic Psychologist, Dr. Stephen Harris. In follow-up to each evaluation, Dr. Harris submitted reports to the Michigan Parole Board. Hired by the Michigan Department of Corrections which has utilized his services on countless cases, Dr. Harris is highly-regarded in his understanding of criminals in the system, his judgment of character and his advice. On April 1, 2016, in a statement to the Michigan Parole Board, Dr. Harris determined that Michael Johnson is clinically safe for release in to the community, stating in his report, “A review of his statement to the Court at the time of sentencing was prophetic, in that Mr. Johnson genuinely expressed sorry and remorse for his actions for the remainder of his life. His reference to pain not only pertained to his own subjective suffering, but also encompassed the pain he caused the family and friends of the victim, as well as his own family…As Dr. Karl Rogers theoretically asserts, the necessary and sufficient conditions for a person to self-actualize include empathy, unconditional love or regard, and congruence. Mr. Johnson most certainly exudes these characteristics in his interactions with others, on a very consistent basis. He is non-judgmental of the value of another human being, although he does appropriately judge or assess whether or not certain behaviors in self or others are appropriate or of value. He most certainly emphasizes with others at a deep emotional level and he is genuine and honest in his self-expressions, thereby exhibiting congruence. In summary, it is this clinician’s opinion that Mr. Michael Johnson has benefited tremendously from the programs made available to him over the years, and as a consequence has been rehabilitated such that he may now be allowed to safely adapt within the community.”
Most remarkably, is the relationship between Michael Johnson, his family and the family of Sue Ellen Machemer. Prompted to connect 16 years ago, a first meeting between Mel and Ellen Machemer and Michael Johnson ensued. At the time, the Machemers simply wanted to look Michael in the eyes and ask “why?” Honesty and tears were shared and shed and the healing began. Over time, friendships between the families were built and the Machemers have since endorsed the release of Michael Johnson, stating in a letter to the Governor of Michigan, “In our heart of hearts, we believe Michael should be released. We’re aware of the commitment his family and friends have made to help Michael get out of prison and re-integrate into the community. We have joined that commitment. Simply put, we feel it is time to heal all wounds.” In a January 18, 2016 letter to the Parole Board, Mel and Ellen Machemer wrote, “When this all happened, we certainly did not think Michael should ever be paroled. But over the years we have come to know him. We feel he has been very candid and honest with us and truly believe he has matured and done everything he can to change his thinking, his attitude and his life. We still miss our daughter very much, but we do not believe keeping Michael in prison any longer will serve any useful purpose. We believe that after serving over 35 years, it is time for Michael to be released.”
In a letter from Sue Ellen’s brother David Machemer, written to the Michigan Parole Board, January 12, 2016, he stated, “I write because I believe that Michael is precisely the (admittedly-rare) case of an inmate who is truly rehabilitated, no longer poses a treat, and is truly ready (even over-due) to be released so he can contribute his talents and find his own place in society. Thank you for the work you do in safeguarding our communities. And thank you for your careful consideration of granting release of Michael Johnson.”
In a March 21, 2016 letter to the Michigan Parole Board, Michael Johnson wrote, “In 1980 I took the life away from a high school classmate – Sue Ellen Machemer. She was only 16 years old. I didn’t know her well, although we shared a Government class together. Her mother, Ellen, has told me much about Sue Ellen over the years – about how Sue Ellen had, at a time in her life, cried before going to high school because she was so afraid she wouldn’t fit in, afraid of the unknown, unsure of herself. And how, as time passed, she began to make friends, joining the pom pom team and the flag corps. She had hopes of being co-captain in her Senior year. She was, simply, a nice young lady, who had just begun to find herself and discover what this world had to offer her. All of that, right about the time I killed her. I was once asked, by Ellen, if I ever thought of her daughter. I do. Everyday…What does a man do when he can not go backward or go forward? That is the dilemma many of us face after serving so many years in prison. For some reason, those of us who came to prison as teenagers and grew up in this place tend to gravitate to each other. And we talk about our past, and our future. As we walk the yard, discussing the crimes we committed in our youth, we hang our heads in shame and disbelief that we once had the capacity to commit such atrocities. That is what I have to say regarding my file review…”
Accomplishments in Prison
Mike Johnson 159608 – 38-Year Retrospective:
A Juvenile Offender’s passage through the Michigan Department of Corrections – February 2018
1980 – Second Degree Life, Murder
MICHIGAN REFORMATORY 1980-1985
1980-1981 – Obtained G.E.D.
1981 – Commutation and Long-term Release Guidelines, Homicide = 18 years
1982 – Completed Group Counseling (RUM organized)
1982-1983 – Attended Montcalm Community College
1983-1985 – MSI Furniture Factory: Hired in at low level (2-rate) clerk,1984 promoted as Factory’s first 7-rate (Specialist) Head Clerk in Main Office
MICHIGAN TRAINING UNIT 1985-1988
1985-1986 – Graduated from Montcalm Community College, Associate Degree in Science and Arts
1986 – Completed Vocational Trade, Office Occupations
1986 – Completed Optional Program, Music Theory
1986-1988 – Institutional Newspaper, Editor from 1987-1988
1987 – Warden’s Forum Representative Achievement Certificate
1987-1988 – MTU Jaycee’s President
1987 – Jaycee’s Outstanding Project, Chairman for Domino’s Pizza Reward Project, incentive program for positive behavior (inmates 12 months ticket-free receive pizza every 4 months at special ceremony)
MUSKEGON CORRECTIONAL FACILITY 1988-2010
1988 – Yard Crew
1988-1990 – MSI, Binder Factory
1990 – Diploma, Paralegal Specialized Practices Program
1990 – Outstanding MSI Work Assignment Recognition Award
1990 – Recreation Department, General Work Crew
1990 – Began Fine Art Painting Career
1991-2000 – Recreation Department, Programs Department Clerk
1996 – Completed RG&C Group Psychotherapy (see report)
2000-2005 – Institutional Newspaper, The Factor, Editor, by 2002 The Factor won 6 Michigan Penal Press Awards including “Best General Excellence” from the Evening News (Sault Ste. Marie, MI)
2002 – Dr. Steven Harris, PhD, conducts in-depth Psych Report, prognosis for re-offending: Very Low
2005-2007 – Inside TV, Production Manager for MCF’s newly established Video assignment – programs taped and shown to population over “in-house” cable channel include: News, educational programs, sporting events, concerts, discussion panels, cooking shows, legal updates
2006 – Warden’s Forum Representative Recognition Memorandum
2006 – Dr. Steven Harris, PhD, conducts follow-up Psych Report, recommending release
2006 – Pre-release Program Completion
2007 – Michigan Officer’s Union President, Ed Fox (now retired), requests release, submitting Letter of Commendation for ‘Meritorious Act,’ attempting to save inmate lives
2007 – Senator Ron Jelinek endorses release in letter to the Parole Board
2008 – Commendation for Warden’s Forum work from Warden Shirlee Harry
2008 – Classification Clerk
2009 – COMPAS Narrative Assessment Summary, Risk Assessment of Violence: Low, Recidivism: Low, Supervision: Low
2009 – Warden Shirlee Harry submits Warden’s Referral for Commutation to Parole Board
IONIA MAXIMUM LEVEL II 2010-present
2010 – Yard Crew
2011 – Unit Laundry Man
2012 – Prisoner Observation Aid Training Program
2012-2016 – Prisoner Observation Aid
2014-present – Library Clerk
38-year Achievements Has maintained education, vocational and institutional assignments for 36 years, with excellent work reports.
4 Tickets: Fighting Ticket (1981), Fighting Ticket (1985), Unauthorized Occupation of a Room (1986), Unauthorized Occupation of a Room (1987)