Friday, September 3, 2004

Defense seeks to block jailhouse talk

Johnson?s attorneys argue a dozen motions on Tuesday

Express Staff Writer

As the Feb. 1 trial for alleged teenage murderer Sarah M. Johnson draws closer, defense attorneys have filed a number of motions?ranging from extremely minor to relatively significant?that could affect the trial and its outcome.

On Tuesday, Aug. 31, 5th District Judge Barry Wood fielded almost a dozen motions made by the defense team, led by public defender Bob Pangburn, who was appointed last fall to represent Johnson. Most notably, the defense asked Wood to suppress comments Johnson made to any one of the approximately 30 cellmates she has been housed with at the Blaine County Jail since her arrest last October.

Johnson is accused of the Sept. 2, 2004, murders of her parents, Alan and Diane Johnson of Bellevue, who were shot early in the morning in their Aspen Drive home. She was indicted by a grand jury last fall, and since has been incarcerated at the Blaine County Jail in lieu of a $2 million bond. Pangburn said that, to the best of his understanding, all of Johnson?s former cellmates have been placed on a list of potential witnesses for the state.

Wood declined to immediately rule on the motion, but scheduled two more days of hearings on Oct. 6 and Oct. 7.

In arguing for the testimonies of the former cellmates to be suppressed, Pangburn pointed out that state law does not allow incarcerated juveniles to be housed with adults. All of 17-year-old Johnson?s cellmates were adults.

?There have been statements to cellmates that have gone on to police officers,? Pangburn said. ?Our con-tention is that any and all statements made by Sarah to all cellmates be suppressed and not be allowed to be submitted.

?We think to the extent that any adults were placed with Sarah, that?s against the law. We would expect this court to find that the state can?t bene-fit from breaking the law.?

Wood agreed without reservation that the prosecution can not benefit from breaking the law. Blaine County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Justin Whatcott, however, pointed out that in order for one of Johnson?s cell-mates? testimonies to be suppressed, defense attorneys must first prove that those people ?went beyond listening? and attempted to elicit information.

Also of significance, Judge Wood and both teams of attorneys began to delineate the means by which a jury for the trial will be selected. Accord-ing to Blaine County Clerk Marsha Reimann, 300 potential jurors are typically selected to be on call for two-month periods. Attorneys agreed that 600 would be called as potential jurors during the two-month period between Jan. 1 and March 1, which will include the anticipated Feb. 1 start date for the murder trial.

Wood encouraged the attorneys to work the details of jury selection out among themselves.

He also approved a motion by the defense team to allow Johnson to appear in court unshackled and in civilian cloths. Thus far, she has made court appearances in an orange jail jumpsuit with shackles on her wrists and ankles. Wood put off a request by defense attorneys seeking permission for Johnson to wear makeup and to have her hair done by a stylist during the trial.

Pangburn explained the impetus behind the request:

?She is a 17-year-old young woman. We are asking that she be able to look her best in front of the jury, and not only the jury, but potentially in front of the entire country,? he said. ?We want her to look as any 17-year-old young lady would like to come to court.?

Other issues discussed included the parameters under which defense attorneys will be permitted to perform tests on evidence collected at the scene of the crime, and a request that the words ?murder? and ?victim? not be allowed to be used during the trial. Wood orchestrated a temporary agreement among the attorneys on the testing of evidence, and he denied the request to prevent the two words from use in the courtroom.

Minor motions ranged from the type of badges jurors will wear during the trial to a request to fix the mute button on defense attorneys? court-room microphone.

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