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Jonesboro school shooter free

Johnson released on 21st birthday


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JONESBORO, Arkansas (CNN) -- Mitchell Johnson walked free from prison Thursday, seven years after he and another student opened fire outside a Jonesboro middle school killing four students and a teacher.

Johnson, who was tried as a juvenile, left a Tennessee facility on his 21st birthday -- his record wiped clean.

The release angered many in Jonesboro and opened fresh wounds in a small community still coping with the deadly attacks.

"I'll never forget what he did to our school, our friends and our teachers. He's changed our lives completely. We don't even know what a normal life is really," shooting survivor Brandi George said.

George was with two friends -- Natalie Brooks and Paige Herring -- on that fateful day at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro on March 24, 1998. The fire alarm had gone off in the school, and they thought they were heading outside for a fire drill. Instead, it was an ambush.

As the girls were walking outside, holding hands and singing, Natalie and Paige were shot dead by Johnson, then 13, and Andrew Golden, then 11. Two other students and a teacher were killed. Nine students and a second teacher were wounded.

Mitch Wright, whose wife was killed in the attack, finds it outrageous that Johnson is getting out. "You look at the number of deaths and the number of people shot, and it's just not right," he said.

Johnson and Golden were tried and convicted as minors, due to a now-closed loophole in which they could not be held under Arkansas' juvenile justice system past age 18. Federal prosecutors were able to use gun charges to keep them in prison until their 21st birthdays.

The boys had stolen weapons from Golden's grandfather, pulled the school's fire alarm and then waited in the woods for teachers and students to gather outside before they opened fire.

Golden is set to be released in 2007.

Johnson left the facility with a clean record. Because he was convicted as a minor, he no longer has a criminal record reflecting the shootings.

Sheriff Jack McCann of Craighead County, Arkansas, said that means he will be able to legally purchase guns. McCann said neither of the boys has given a reason for the shootings or expressed remorse.

"I think that's one of the major problems everyone has with this case," he said.

The sheriff spoke with Johnson's mother who said her son would not be living in the Jonesboro area after his release. She still lives about a mile from the middle school where the shooting took place.

Johnson's mother was quoted in an Arkansas paper as saying her son wants to become a minister and that he promises to never live in Arkansas again.

That suits most people here in Jonesboro just fine.

"I'm glad he's not coming back to Jonesboro. Too many people in this area would put a hole in him," resident Greg Slayton said.

Whitney Irving, a student at the middle school when the shootings occurred, said she and others still struggle to cope with what happened seven years ago.

"I want to ask him personally: Have you changed? Do you feel sorry for what you did? Have you suffered like we have?" she said. "Of course, there's no way he's suffered as much as we have."

She added, "In my eyes, he's always going to be a killer. I mean I don't see how you can go from being a killer to being a minister, especially just in seven years."

CNN's Ed Lavandera contributed to this report.

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