Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Defense declines to question Johnson's boyfriend

Former tenant remembers 'Sweet Sarah'

Express Staff Writer

Predicted to last six to eight weeks, the trial of Sarah M. Johnson, 18, of Bellevue, opened Feb. 1 in 4th District Court at the Ada County Courthouse in Boise. The trial was moved to Boise early in January when 5th District Judge Barry Wood ruled it was impractical to attempt to panel a non-biased jury in Blaine County where the crime was committed. Johnson is charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of her parents, Alan Johnson, 46, and Diane Johnson, 52, in their Bellevue home on Sept. 2, 2003. If convicted, she faces life in prison.

Sarah M. Johnson's defense attorneys declined Tuesday to question the man they say they believe may have killed Johnson's parents, Alan and Diane Johnson, in Bellevue on Sept. 2, 2003.

Johnson's former boyfriend, Bruno Santos Dominguez, 21, will continue to be held at the Blaine County Jail in lieu of a $150,000 bond following his testimony Tuesday in Johnson's trial on two charges of first degree murder.

On Tuesday afternoon, following Santos Dominguez's testimony, prosecuting attorneys sought to expunge the $150,000 bond. Elimination of the bond would leave a more manageable $10,000 bond that was set to ensure Santos Dominguez stands trial this spring for drug possession charges. The $150,000 bond was set by 5th District Judge Barry Wood to ensure the Mexican national testifies in Johnson's trial, under way at the Ada County Courthouse in Boise this month.

But Johnson's defense attorneys, who have more than hinted that they believe Santos Dominguez may have had something to do with the murders of Alan and Diane Johnson, said Santos Dominguez could be called as a witness when they argue their case in a few weeks. Even so, defense attorneys declined to cross-examine Santos Dominguez Tuesday afternoon.

Asked why his team would decline to cross examine a person who appears to be integral to its case, defense attorney Bob Pangburn said there are other ways to try to prove Santos Dominguez was involved.

At the time of the murders of Alan and Diane Johnson, Sarah Johnson, then 16, had been dating Santos Dominguez, then 19, for three months. Prosecuting attorneys have postulated that Sarah Johnson may have been motivated to kill her parents, in part, when they forbade her from dating Santos Dominguez.

The court proceedings leading up to Santos Dominguez's testimony were considerably more dramatic than his testimony. Outside the presence of the jury, attorneys argued about how much of Santos Dominguez's mixed past they could dredge up in the courtroom. Prosecuting attorneys said little of his past should be discussed before the jury. Defense attorneys said much of it should.

Defense attorney Mark Rader said that during cross examination he would ask Santos Dominguez about his criminal history and about his sexual relations with Sarah Johnson.

But Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Thomas said that if Santos Dominguez answered in the affirmative about having sex with a minor, he would be obliged to bring rape charges.

Defense attorneys were relatively clear, however, about where their case may be leading.

"He has the strongest motive to kill of anyone in this courtroom," Rader said. "He has the strongest motive to lie. If he doesn't lie, he could be charged with seven charges of rape, statutory rape. He has connections and knows people who do evil and nefarious things."

Defense attorneys argued that Santos Dominguez should testify wearing shackles and a jail jumpsuit. Prosecuting attorneys argued that his mixed past should not be part of the proceedings.

After several minutes of quibbling, Wood stepped in.

"I've had enough of this. We can get beyond this," he said. "Do you want him to testify with a noose around his neck?"

And when push came to shove, Santos Dominguez did not offer any testimony that shook the house down.

On the afternoon of the day before the Johnsons were murdered, Santos Dominguez said he visited with Sarah Johnson at Wood River High School, where she was attending volleyball practice.

"In that moment, I felt like she was acting, how to you say it, weird," he said via a court interpreter. That evening, he went home and slept on an air mattress on the living room floor of an apartment at the Balmoral Apartments, where his mother, sister, brother in law and nephew were staying.

Santos Dominguez's history with the Johnson case has a number of twists and turns. He was discovered to be an illegal alien following the Johnson murders. He was deported in September 2003, but was brought back to the U.S. with special permission from the Department of Homeland Security to testify in Johnson's trial.

But in October 2004, he was arrested for possession of methamphetamine and retained in the Blaine County Jail in lieu of a $10,000 bond. The additional $150,000 bond was instituted to ensure that Santos Dominguez is not released from jail. If he is released, he could quickly be deported despite the pending drug charges.

On Tuesday morning, Mel Speegle, the owner of the rifle that officials say was used to kill the Johnsons, testified that he was out of town when the couple was killed. The rifle was taken out of the closet of an apartment Speegle rented from the Johnsons. He had only fired the weapon two or three times in the 12 years he owned the rifle, designed for big game hunting.

Speegle said he had pleasant interactions with Sarah Johnson, whom he sold his car, and had regular visits with her.

"I called her Sweet Sarah," he said. "She seemed normal and sweet." He remembered telling an investigator from the Idaho Attorney General's office that "she was the sweetest thing he's ever known."

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