Wednesday, February 2, 2005

Bellevue murders trial opens in Boise

Jury selection begins for trial of Sarah Johnson

Express Staff Writer

For the first time since her arrest on Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2003, Sarah M. Johnson wore civilian cloths in court. In contrast with her prior appearances in an orange jail jumpsuit, she appeared groomed and wore a light blue sweater over a collared shirt.

Tuesday, Feb. 1 was the first day of the trial in which a jury of Ada County residents will determine if Johnson, 18, is guilty of shooting and killing her parents in Bellevue on Sept. 2, 2003. The trial is scheduled to take between six and eight weeks, and by the time the proceedings have concluded it will have been nearly a year and a half since Johnson's arrest.

Initial proceedings on Tuesday centered on seeking jurors from a pool of 154 Ada County residents. The prospective jurors were brought in two waves into a courtroom on the fifth and top-most floor of the Ada County Courthouse in downtown Boise.

Jury service is "part of your obligation in your citizenship in this state and country," admonished 5th District Judge Barry Wood. It is "one of the highest duties of citizenship."

Prospective jurors were asked questions about employment obligations and any other life matters that could make their attendance at a two-month trial impractical. Wood excused more than two dozen potential jurors.

Jurors still in the pool were instructed to return at 9 a.m. Wednesday for questioning by attorneys about their backgrounds, life experiences and opinions to determine if they can weigh evidence fairly and objectively. The process is called voir dire, an Anglo-French term meaning "to speak the truth." A final panel of 12 jurors and six alternates will be chosen by attorneys based on answers to questions during voir dire.

In order to try to accommodate jurors' private lives through the course of the trial, Wood said the daily proceedings would run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and include two 20-minute breaks each day. Opening arguments by attorneys are scheduled to begin Monday, Feb. 7.

Johnson is charged with the murders of her parents, Alan Johnson, 46, and Diane Johnson, 52. At the time of her arrest, authorities said they believed the then-16-year-old Johnson acted out of revenge when her parents forbade her from seeing a Mexican national, Bruno Santos Dominguez, who was then 19 and said to have become Johnson's fiancé.

On Monday, Nov. 3, 2003, Johnson entered pleas of not guilty on both counts of first-degree murder. In November 2003, Johnson's defense attorney, Bob Pangburn, said: "From what I've seen so far, it looks like a very tryable case." However, a gag order on attorneys and others involved with the case has limited substantive ongoing comments from defense or prosecuting attorneys.

Last week, Blaine County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Justin Whatcott indicated the prosecution could call as many as 130 witnesses during the trial. Pangburn said his team could call as many as 40 witnesses.

The trial was moved to the 4th District Court in Boise early in January when Wood ruled it was impractical to attempt to panel a non-biased jury in Blaine County where the crime was committed. In a Jan. 13 order, Wood indicated he would manage, to a degree, the media coverage of the trial. He ruled that only one television organization would be selected to provide pooled coverage.

By trial's end, the year-and-a-half-long proceedings could cost Blaine County more than $1 million. The county is footing the bill for prosecuting attorneys and defense attorneys, who Johnson secured through a public defender contract. Late last month, the county had already spent upwards of $478,000, said Blaine County Clerk Marsha Reimann.

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