Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Johnson trial begins Tuesday

Attorneys say pre-trial settlement unlikely

Express Staff Writer

Sarah M. Johnson's 18th birthday on Monday, Jan. 24 marked a weeklong countdown to her double murder trial, which is scheduled to begin Tuesday, Feb. 1, in 4th District Court in Boise.

At the time she allegedly shot and killed her parents at their Bellevue home on Sept. 2, 2003, Johnson was 16. She faces two counts of first degree murder and will stand trial as an adult.

The trial was moved to Boise earlier this month when 5th District Judge Barry Wood ruled it was impractical to attempt to panel a non-biased jury in Blaine County. More than 400 prospective Blaine County jurors were summoned in December to fill out questionnaires pertaining to the case.

"The presumption of innocence is gone in this community," Wood said, according to court minutes.

Earlier this month, the Ada County jury commissioner summoned a panel of 125 prospective jurors. Of those, 18 will be chosen for a jury of 12 and six alternates.

Jury selection will begin Tuesday, Feb. 1, and opening arguments are scheduled to begin Monday Feb. 7. In a Jan. 13 order, Wood indicated he would keep a tight leash on the media at the trial. He ruled that one television organization would be selected to provide pooled coverage. Only one television camera will be allowed inside the courtroom at any given time.

Wood also scheduled a pretrial media conference in which he will address all reporters and photographers planning to cover the trial.

Attorneys for the pending trial said Tuesday afternoon they are prepared to proceed and that an out-of-court settlement is unlikely.

"This has never been a settleable case from my perspective," said Johnson's public defender, Bob Pangburn. "We're starting at such diverse positions. There never was any middle ground."

Blaine County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Justin Whatcott agreed that an out-of-court settlement is unlikely.

Attorneys anticipate the trial will take between six and eight weeks. Prosecutors may call up to 130 witnesses, and defense attorneys may call up to 40 witnesses.

"Sometimes they go a little quicker than you think, but it's hard to say when you've got that much evidence," Whatcott said.

Johnson is charged with the murders of her parents, Alan Johnson, 46, and Diane Johnson, 52. At an Oct. 30 press conference, authorities said they believe the then-16-year-old Sarah Johnson acted out of revenge when her parents forbade her from seeing Bruno Santos Dominguez, who at the age of 19 was Johnson's fiancé.

Johnson was arrested Wednesday, Oct. 29 following a two-month investigation into the murders of Alan and Diane Johnson. She has been incarcerated at the Blaine County Jail and the Mini-Cassia Criminal Justice Center in Burley in lieu of a $2 million bond.

On Monday, Nov. 3, 2003, Johnson entered pleas of not guilty on both counts of murder in the first degree. In November 2003, Pangburn said, "From what I've seen so far, it looks like a very tryable case."

Santos Dominguez was deported to Mexico on Sept. 12, 2003, but as a result of the murder investigation he was brought back to testify, first as part of the grand jury proceeding that indicted Johnson.

Shortly after Johnson's arrest, Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling said Santos Dominguez is not considered a suspect or conspirator in the murders but was one of five "people of interest" previously under investigation. He said the Mexican national is considered a material witness to the case.

"I can't release what he may or may not know," Femling said.

Santos Dominguez was since arrested on drug charges and is being held at the Blaine County Jail on a $10,000 bond, as well as a $150,000 bond to ensure he does not flee the country or get deported again before the trial.

Blaine County Clerk Marsha Reimann said she could not accurately determine how much the move to Ada County would cost the county, but she said the county has spent $478,000 so far and has another $600,000 ready to go.

Assistant Clerk Joanna Ehrmantraut said that if the trial lasts the two full months that are predicted, the total cost could be around $1 million.

"Both the state and we are working hard to get ready to start this trial next week," Pangburn said. "I think we'll both be ready."

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