After almost 20 years of maintaining his innocence, a death row inmate's request to re-examine DNA evidence from a murder scene went before a Marion County judge Friday.
Shackled, dressed in a green prison jumpsuit and accompanied by three Oregon Department of Corrections officers, convicted murderer Jesse Lee Johnson was marched past a courtroom full of Oregon Innocence Project staff, law students and the family of the woman he's accused of killing.
During the two-hour hearing, Steven Wax, legal director of the Oregon Innocence Project, and attorney Brittney Plesser argued that 38 pieces of crime scene evidence should be retested.
But Judge Channing Bennett wanted to know how testing the evidence would prove Johnson innocent. Bennett said he was going to walk through both arguments and submit his decision in writing. No timeline was given for the decision.
Johnson, 56, was sentenced to death in 2004 for the murder of Harriet Lavern “Sunny” Thompson, 28.
The Oregon Innocence Project took on Johnson's case in 2016 and filed a motion requesting the DNA testing and retesting.
The original case
Thompson’s landlord discovered her lifeless body on March 20, 1998, in her apartment on 12th Street SE, just south of Morningside Elementary School.
Authorities 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.
Her couch was soaked in blood, and specks of blood dotted the apartment's linoleum floor.
Investigators later learned Thompson, a nursing aide and mother of five, had slowly bled to death.
The deputy district attorney at the time, Darin Tweedt, described the aftermath of the brutal crime as being like "a scene from a slaughterhouse."
Johnson was later arrested and admitted to knowing Thompson, but denied killing her or ever going to her apartment.
Jewelry provides a link
The case was a drawn-out affair, taking six years from Thompson's death to Johnson's conviction.
Tweedt said the residence was ransacked and stated the motive was robbery. He said Thompson’s stolen jewelry was traded for drugs and some pieces were found at Johnson’s girlfriend’s home.
One man said Johnson traded a silver, garnet-stone ring in exchange for methamphetamine.
The witness, a drug dealer, met with Johnson under the Mission Street overpass shortly after the murder to trade the jewelry for drugs. He said Johnson told him he "offed the (explicit)" to get the jewelry.
Johnson also allegedly gave a pair of sun and moon earrings to a woman. The woman, uneasy about the gifted jewelry, turned the earrings over to police. Family members identified the ring and earrings as belonging to Thompson.
Several pieces of DNA evidence were recovered at Thompson’s home. Some, including a cigarette butt, a bottle of liquor and a dollar bill, matched Johnson’s DNA. Others did not.
Officers collected a bloody sweater, two bloody towels and a broken knife from Thompson’s bathroom. A serrated steak knife was found in the toilet.
In the defense’s closing statements, Johnson’s attorneys told jurors that crime scene investigators failed to investigate evidence that pointed to another suspect.
"There are more questions as we sit here six years later than there are answers in this case," said Noel Grefenson, Johnson’s defense attorney.
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.
Before signing Johnson's death warrant, Marion County Judge Jamese Rhoades said she'd never seen a defendant with less hope for rehabilitation.
"I don't think there's anybody in this courtroom that believes you're innocent," she said.
Although he declined to testify during the trial, Johnson stood and spoke during his sentencing hearing.
"I'm innocent of this crime," he said. "I didn't kill Harriet."
Argument made for DNA retesting
The Oregon Innocence Project has received more than 350 requests for reviews. It has reviewed more than 200 and decided to pursue only five. Johnson's murder conviction was the project's first DNA-based case.
"Our investigation showed there is a wealth of physical evidence that either has not been tested or was tested using outdated technology," Wax told the Statesman Journal in November.
He said further testing of the evidence, including blood found at the scene and DNA recovered from the victim, could lead to Johnson's exoneration.
A memorandum filed on Johnson's behalf stated the following:
Johnson later admitted to stopping by Thompson's apartment, and the pieces of evidence were consistent with a social visit.
However, several key items recovered from the scene did not match Johnson’s DNA.
A semen sample taken from a vaginal swab of the victim, a spot of blood by the bathroom sink, blood on the bathroom floor and hairs found on the victim were not a match to Johnson.
In 2016, at the request of Johnson’s lawyers, one of the vaginal swabs taken from Thompson was submitted to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, also known as CODIS. The search returned with one match — for a man not previously investigated as part of Thompson’s murder.
A public records search revealed the man had a history of violence against women.
The motion requested the retesting — or first-time analysis on pieces weren't initially tested — of the physical evidence with newer DNA technology by an independent crime lab. It also requests the DNA be submitted to CODIS for possible matches.
In the state's response, prosecutors said Johnson's motion should be denied.
The response stated the following:
DNA testing would not exonerate Johnson. A witness placed Johnson near the crime scene the day of the murder. His possession of Thompson's jewelry proved that he had robbed her. Another witness recounted Johnson's confession of the crime.
The pieces of evidence recovered at the scene merely proved that Johnson was a liar, prosecutors said.
"It provided the proverbial nail in the coffin that the defendant had been inside her residence despite his repeated denials to the contrary," they wrote.
Prosecutors also said the identity of the man whose DNA was found inside Thompson was inconsequential.
During the autopsy, the medical examiner found no evidence of sexual assault, and according to friends, Thompson was a crack cocaine user and engaged in prostitution.
When a Salem police detective interviewed the man whose semen was found, he denied knowing Thompson but admitted to frequenting prostitutes in 1998.
Prosecutors conceded that the man had a history of violence. However, they added, so did Johnson. His criminal record, which was used as evidence during his sentencing, included the armed robbery of two women, the assault of an inmate and the forcible anal sodomy of another inmate.
The jury knew the DNA found in Thompson did not match Johnson. They chose to convict him regardless.
"Simply put, this is not a DNA case," prosecutor Katie Suver said.
The Johnson's guilt rested on the jewelry, on his confession and on his lies.
"There are questions here," Wax said, adding that a man's life on death row was at stake.
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