Friday, February 25, 2005

Former cellmate testifies against Johnson

Defense attorney unable to shake up witness

Express Staff Writer

Prosecuting attorneys attempted to illustrate Thursday afternoon the September 2003 murders of Alan and Diane Johnson in their Bellevue home by using actual evidence from the crime scene in a display for the jury. However, before the production got under way 5th District Judge Barry Wood ruled that the evidence must be repackaged and the courtroom cleaned. Photo by Willy Cook

Now in its fourth week, the double murder 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 Sept. 2, 2003. If convicted, she faces life in prison.

Prosecuting attorneys called to the stand Wednesday one of their most damning witnesses in the double murder trial of Sarah Johnson.

Malinda Gonzales was housed with the Bellevue teenager at the Blaine County Jail before Gonzales' December 2003 sentencing on felony drug charges. Shortly after taking the stand, Gonzales offered the following anecdote about her conversations with Johnson:

"We would talk, and I'd ask her questions over and over and over again. We were talking, and she said, 'When I kill -- I mean when the killers killed my parents...' I said, it's okay. I'm not going to nark on you."

Among the many questions prosecutors proceeded to ask was what Johnson had said about why she killed her parents, Alan and Diane Johnson, on Sept. 2, 2003, in their Bellevue home.

"Because they weren't going to let them (Sarah Johnson and Bruno Santos) be together," Gonzales shrugged.

Compared with other witnesses, Gonzales was rough around the edges. She openly yawned on multiple occasions during her testimony. She answered questions in a curt, dismissive manner. But despite her conviction as a drug dealer, she may have been a believable witness.

During the long, slow hours spent behind bars, Sarah Johnson bided her time talking with cellmates and reading James Patterson novels, Gonzales said. She cried "maybe twice" during the two months they were housed together late in 2003.

Gonzales' testimony has been the subject of courtroom proceedings for many months. Defense attorneys filed a motion last year to have the 22-year-old woman's testimony suppressed on the grounds that then-16-year-old Johnson should have been housed alone because she was a juvenile. But 5th District Judge Barry Wood denied the motion, and that left defense attorneys with only one option. On Thursday morning, they attacked Gonzales' credibility, and they succeeded at raising her hackles on several occasions.

"You're a joke to me, Mr. Pangburn," Gonzales quipped when Pangburn asked if she thought the trial was funny.

In particular, Pangburn attempted to elicit information from Gonzales indicating she had struck some sort of a deal with the state for more lenient sentencing. Gonzales faces 16 years in prison for trafficking drugs in the Wood River Valley. Retired 5th District Judge James May sentenced her Dec. 1, 2003.

"Considering all my charges, I'm happy with my sentence," Gonzales said. But she stressed that testifying in Johnson's trial was no picnic. She said an inmate had thrown hot coffee on her and another inmate punched her.

But Gonzales said she was motivated to testify because "It's the right thing to do."

"I can't be with my parents, and I don't want anything to ever happen to them...That's exactly why I came in today," she said.

There was considerable discussion outside the presence of the jury Wednesday afternoon about one part of Gonzales' testimony, and 5th District Judge Barry Wood finally ruled after more than an hour that it was not admissible because of the context from which the information came. According to Gonzales, Johnson was watching a television program about forensic analysis of crime scenes.

Near the end of the program, Johnson turned to her cellmate and said, "Oh s..., I'm gonna' get convicted," Gonzales said.

Wood nearly ruled initially that the comment appeared to be in context and could be admissible, but after an hour of deliberation decided it was unclear what in the television show had prompted Johnson to make the statement.

Gonzales also said her cellmate talked about knives that were left at the scene of the murders. She said the knives, left near several beds in the home, had been left to "throw off police." They came up because Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling had not mentioned the knives during a press conference about Johnson's arrest.

Femling, who also testified Thursday morning, said he had never released the information about the knives.

"One, we felt that the knives were placed there to throw us off track," he said. "We did not want to give that information out to the general public."

Femling's testimony begged the question: How did Johnson know about the knives?

What's more, Gonzales testified that Johnson had been upset that police had arrived at the scene in time to send a garbage truck away. A bathrobe and gloves were found in a garbage can on the morning of the murders.

"She said, 'F...' Walt got there and messed things up.'" Gonzales said Johnson had known the trash collection schedule.

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