SALEM, Ore. — An Oregon man who has spent almost two decades on death row for a murder he says he didn’t commit got another chance to prove his innocence.
The Oregon Court of Appeals on Wednesday reversed the aggravated murder conviction and death sentence for Jesse Lee Johnson, saying he didn’t receive an adequate defense.
Johnson, 60, was sentenced to death in 1998 for the murder of Harriet Lavern “Sunny” Thompson, 28, in her Salem apartment. Johnson has maintained his innocence for more than 20 years and has made multiple attempts to prove it.
He was given his chance Wednesday when Judge Rex Armstrong wrote that during Johnson’s trial, his attorneys failed to investigate evidence that could have changed the case’s outcome.
Attorneys representing Johnson after his conviction discovered that Thompson’s neighbor, who lived across the street from the victim, said she saw a white man enter the home around the time of the murder. But the lawyers who represented Johnson, who is Black, at his trial failed to include testimony from the neighbor. Police also did not interview the neighbor.
Armstrong wrote that this critical error and the “deficient performance” of his lawyers could have affected the outcome of Johnson’s case.
“Today’s opinion is a long-overdue step toward righting a terrible injustice,” Johnson’s lawyer, Ryan O’Connor, said in a statement. “The evidence in this case shows that racism and police misconduct played a significant role in Mr. Johnson’s wrongful conviction in 2004.
“I am hopeful that now, in 2021, and with the benefit of this Court of Appeals opinion, the prosecutors will do the right thing and drop the charges against Mr. Johnson,” he said.
Marion County Deputy District Attorney Amy Queen said the office would review the case in order to determine the next steps.
Mother of 5 stabbed in brutal attack
After Thompson’s landlord discovered her body in 1998, Salem police officers determined she died from multiple stab wounds. Her throat had been slashed, and her hands were covered in defensive wounds from trying to fight back.
Investigators later learned Thompson, a nursing aide and mother of five, had slowly bled to death.
The Marion County deputy district attorney at the time, Darin Tweedt, described the aftermath of the brutal crime as being like “a scene from a slaughterhouse.”
Tweedt said Thompson’s residence was ransacked and her jewelry was stolen and traded for drugs. He said some pieces were found at Johnson’s girlfriend’s home.
Johnson, who was arrested a week later, said he knew Thompson but denied killing her or ever going to her apartment.
The case was a drawn-out affair, taking six years from Thompson’s death to Johnson’s conviction.
Johnson maintained his innocence throughout the investigation. Before his 2004 trial, he declined the state’s plea offer for first-degree manslaughter and first-degree robbery.
Jurors took six hours over the course of two days to come to a unanimous verdict on March 18, 2004: Johnson was guilty of aggravated murder in Thompson’s stabbing death. He was sentenced to death.
Multiple attempts have been made to prove Johnson’s innocence.
In 2016, lawyers Steve Wax and Brittney Plesser from the Oregon Innocence Project filed a motion in Marion County to request the DNA testing and re-testing of at least 38 pieces of evidence.
In an initial decision, Judge Channing Bennett denied the motion. Wax and Plesser’s appeal of Bennet’s decision remains pending.
“This is a critical step forward in Mr. Johnson’s determined effort to prove his innocence,” Wax and Plesser said of Wednesday’s Court of Appeals opinion in a statement. “He has never wavered in claiming innocence of the crime. …We are delighted that the Court has reversed his conviction.”
Lawyers failed to interview neighbor
In one of his arguments for post-conviction relief, Johnson claimed he was denied the right to an adequate and effective counsel because of his lawyer’s failure to interview Thomspon’s neighbor, Patricia Hubbard.
Hubbard was sitting on her porch the night Thompson was murdered, she said in a deposition taken in 2013 on the post-conviction case. She said she saw a white man drive up and park his van in the victim’s driveway, adding she’d noticed the man come to Thompson’s house many times before.
Within seconds, she heard shouting and screaming coming from inside the home, as well as what sounded like pots and pans crashing inside. Then she heard a thud followed by silence.
The man, Hubbard said, came out the back door and took off running.
Minutes later, she saw a Black man walking down the driveway, though she couldn’t say whether he’d come from inside the house. When Johnson’s post-conviction attorneys showed Hubbard his photograph approximately 12 years after the murder, Hubbard said that he did not look like the person she saw that night.
One day after the murder, Hubbard approached a Salem police officer to explain what she witnessed, but the officer told her he didn’t need her help. She tried to tell police what she saw on another occasion but was told her statement wouldn’t be necessary.
Hubbard said she would have testified what she saw at the trial.
In the appeals case, the defense argued the six hours investigators spent canvassing Thompson’s neighborhood was enough and that initial police reports showed no one at Hubbard’s address had any useful information.
Johnson’s lawyers argued any “reasonable” defense attorney would’ve known how important it was to interview the residents surrounding Thompson’s home and that it was unreasonable to stop canvassing after only six hours.
At the time, the post-conviction court agreed the counsel “failed to use a reasonable skill” by not interviewing Hubbard, but concluded the case’s outcome wasn’t likely affected by their “deficient” performance.
The court stated the trial produced evidence that coincided with what Hubbard would have testified and that there was a long period of time between the murder and her interview.
In his opinion Wednesday, Armstrong disagreed with the post-conviction court’s decision.
“A reasonable investigation would likely have led to finding and interviewing Hubbard, which in turn would have led to evidence and testimony that could have tended to affect the outcome of the trial,” Armstrong wrote.
Contributing: Whitney Woodworth, the Statesman Journal
Follow Virginia Barreda on Twitter at @vbarreda2.