SALEM, Ore. – Oregon's court of appeals reversed the murder conviction and death sentence of a Black man Wednesday, saying his defense team failed to interview a key witness who saw a white man fleeing the victim's home.
Jesse Johnson was accused of stabbing Harriet Thompson, a 28-year-old Black nurse’s aide, to death in her Salem home in 1998. He has repeatedly claimed innocence and refused a plea deal.
Ryan O'Connor, Johnson's attorney during the appeal phase, said racism and police misconduct contributed to his wrongful conviction. The lawyer told Johnson of the appeals court's decision in a phone call to the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem.
“He’s happy. It feels like it's long overdue. He's been in prison for a long time for something he didn’t do. He said this is what he's been waiting for," O'Connor said.
But the decision doesn't mean Johnson will be freed immediately, if at all. O'Connor said Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum could appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court. Her spokeswoman Kristina Edmunson said they are reviewing the decision. If it doesn't go to the Supreme Court, the Marion County district attorney could order a new trial or dismiss the charges, O'Connor said.
Johnson's appeal centered on a claim that his lawyers were deficient in representing him because the jury never heard that the victim's neighbor, Patricia Hubbard, had seen a white man park his van in Thompson’s driveway around 3:45 a.m. March 20, 1998, and go inside. Seconds later, Hubbard heard screaming coming from Thompson’s house, a thud and then silence.
She told investigators, who found and contacted her after Johnson was convicted, that she saw the white man run from the house and a few minutes later, a Black man walk down the driveway. She did not identify him as Johnson.
The jury didn't know all this because Johnson's trial lawyers failed to find Hubbard and speak to her. Police didn't interview her either, even though on the day of the killing she had approached a police officer and said she had information, only to be told he didn’t need her help and to go home.
Soon after the murder, another neighbor of Thompson's brought a Salem police detective to Hubbard’s house. When Hubbard began describing what she had seen, the detective allegedly said, twice using a racial epithet, that a Black woman got murdered and a Black man is “going to pay for it.”
O’Connor said “racism and police misconduct played a significant role in Mr. Johnson’s wrongful conviction ... Jesse Lee Johnson is an innocent man who has spent more than 20 years in prison sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit.”
The appeals court said that a post-conviction court erred in concluding that the failure of Johnson's lawyers to properly investigate did not prejudice Johnson's case.
“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,” the appeals court said.
Former Gov. John Kitzhaber declared a moratorium on executions in 2011, and current Gov. Kate Brown extended it, so prisoners sentenced to death are no long on death row at the Oregon State Penitentiary. Johnson was pulled from the general prison population to take O'Connor's call Thursday in the prison's law library.
“Because of COVID, they’re not doing in-person visits and the legal calls are really booked, so we had to scramble to get a call in,” O'Connor said. "He wasn’t expecting this call today. We’ve been waiting over two years for this opinion to come out. It was a pleasant surprise.”
O'Connor himself had learned of the appeals court's Reynold's ruling only by constantly checking the court's website, where rulings are published every Wednesday.
“So I was in my kitchen, getting my kids ready for school and refreshing the appeals court website on my phone," O'Connor said. "I was so happy. Mostly it is a feeling of relief because this is the right decision under the law and it's the just decision, and I strongly believe in Mr. Johnson’s innocence.”
There is also another attempt that is ongoing to prove Johnson's innocence.
Johnson's DNA wasn’t on any of the tested murder evidence. The Oregon Innocence Project has asked a court to allow additional DNA testing of crime-scene evidence in the case. That appeal remains pending.
Follow Andrew Selsky on Twitter at https://twitter.com/andrewselsky