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Oregon Court of Appeals orders retrial for man on death row for Salem murder

Jesse Lee Johnson has spent nearly two decades on death row for the 1998 murder of a Salem woman. Now, he has a chance for freedom.

SALEM, Ore. — The Oregon Court of Appeals has ordered a new trial for a man who has spent nearly two decades on death row.

In 2004, Jesse Lee Johnson was convicted and sentenced to death in the 1998 murder of Harriet Thompson. The mother of five was found stabbed to death in her Salem apartment. While Johnson admitted he'd been to Thompson's home before, he always maintained his innocence.

On Wednesday, the Oregon Court of Appeals reversed Johnson’s murder conviction and ordered a retrial.

“It's an incredible feeling. This case is once in a lifetime,” said Johnson’s post-conviction attorney, Ryan O’Connor. “You know he's been fighting this case for more than 20 years.”

O’Connor said he spoke with Johnson by phone after the court’s decision.

“He was very happy, very excited,” said O’Connor. “Looking forward to hopefully being released from prison.”

The appeals court based its decision on a key witness account from a woman named Patricia Hubbard. At the time of the murder, Hubbard lived across the street from Thompson. Hubbard said she heard screams and saw a white man with long hair running from the scene — Johnson showed up later. But Johnson's original defense team never interviewed Hubbard. Neither did police.

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“It was the case that kept us up at night. We all believed that Jesse Johnson was just the wrong guy,” said Eric Mason, a private legal investigator. 

Mason has been working on Johnson’s case for several years along with the Oregon Innocence Project. He tracked down Hubbard and got her witness account to the appeals court.

“The first thing that jumps out at you is you have an African American client on death row and you go, wow, something's wrong here,” said Mason. “The person that obviously is running out of the house that morning is not the same race as the person that's been accused and convicted.”

Reached by phone, Hubbard told KGW, "I'm excited for Jesse. As long as fairness comes to the gentleman that it needs to go to, that's what's important to me."

Hubbard’s old roommate, Teresa Montero, still lives in the same house in Salem. While she did not witness the moments after Thompson’s murder, she's anxious to see what happens to Johnson.

“Twenty years,” said Montero, “that's a long time to take from somebody's life if they are truly innocent.”

Exactly what happens next is unclear. Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum could appeal the ruling to the State Supreme Court. A spokesperson for Rosenblum told KGW they haven't decided if they'll seek further review or not. 

Beyond that, O'Connor said the Marion County District Attorney’s Office could order a new trial or even dismiss charges.

“I’m hopeful that we can see this all the way through to him actually being released from prison and given his liberty back,” said O'Connor.

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