Friday, February 25, 2005

Prosecution to wrap up today

Court adjourns early Thursday to avoid health risk

Express Staff Writer

5th District Judge Barry Wood

As prosecutors set the stage for a grand finale in their case against Sarah M. Johnson on Thursday afternoon, the presiding judge shut the operation down, ordered everyone out of the courtroom and rescheduled proceedings for Friday morning.

"This material could present a health hazard," said 5th District Judge Barry Wood as he surveyed his courtroom, which had been converted into a display of the bedroom where Alan and Diane Johnson were shot and killed a year and a half ago.

The actual bloodstained bed sheets from the Johnson home were removed from their plastic wrapping and placed over an artificial plywood bed. The bathrobe the murderer allegedly wore was removed from its wrapping and hung on a mannequin. Pieces of body tissue were displayed on the floor. For much of the evidence, it was the first time in the three weeks of proceedings that it was removed from its packaging.

In sum, prosecutors attempted to recreate the murder scene as accurately as possible, given the constraints of a modern-day courtroom. As members of the prosecution's team set the stage, a sour aroma spread through the wood-panel room, and several people in the audience remarked about it.

Before the jury could be called back, however, the presiding marshal asked Wood to consider the situation because of potential health risks. Neither defense nor prosecuting attorneys objected, but Wood ordered that all of the evidence be repackaged and that the courtroom be vacuumed and sterilized.

But the prosecution isn't alone with its plans to recreate the murder scene. Defense attorney Bob Pangburn said after the day's proceedings that his team also plans to perform a reenactment. He said, however, that he does not plan to unwrap any of the evidence when his turn arrives.

Prosecuting attorneys attempted to finish trying their case on Thursday. When court adjourned early, only two of the prosecution's witnesses had not yet testified: a crime scene expert and Matt Johnson, Sarah Johnson's 21-year-old half brother. Blaine County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Justin Whatcott said Matt Johnson would be the last witness to testify. He predicted the prosecution would be finished with its case by around noon today.

Later today, attorneys planned to begin arguing motions related to the defense's case. The defense will begin with opening arguments on Monday.

Thursday was the most crowded day of the trial, which began with jury selection Feb. 1 and opening arguments from the prosecution on Feb. 7. As morning crept into afternoon, there was standing room only in the back of the courtroom. One particularly large group of teens from a nearby school was turned around at the door because there were no seats left.

On Wednesday, prosecutors called several of Sarah Johnson's schoolmates from Middleton High School, where she attended classes after she began living with her aunt and uncle in Caldwell. Kassi Webber said she knew Sarah to fib, but also said she liked her new friend.

"I was very sad, very hurt," when she was arrested for the murders of her parents, Webber said. She said she remembers telling a police investigator that Johnson is "a very nice person" who would never kill her parents.

Webber's testimony was consistent with other teens from Middleton High School.

Katheryn Wallace, now a senior, said Johnson was interested in money and talked about a $600,000 inheritance she would get from her parents' life insurance policy. She also corroborated that Johnson had a ring she claimed to represent her engagement to Bruno Santos Dominguez. The only time Wallace said she saw Johnson cry was when Santos Dominguez was deported.

Wallace, too, said Johnson was a nice person. Wallace said she was frustrated at first when Johnson was accused of the crimes.

But Johnson's Blaine County cellmates also said she was a nice person.

Mackay resident Novetta Pritchett was incarcerated at the Blaine County Jail for about 10 days in January 2004. She said Johnson seemed "pretty lax, happy."

"She said that she knew who it was (who killed her parents) and that they (police) were coming after her. But she never indicated who," Pritchett said.

Pritchett also said Johnson frequently talked about money and was upset with her brother for spending some of the inheritance.

Also, Johnson appeared confident about her defense in January 2004.

"She said that her lawyers were going to get her off," Pritchett said.

"Were those the exact words she used, get off?" Whatcott asked.

"Yes," Pritchett responded.

Several of Johnson's former cellmates said she mentioned that she had been pregnant and had had a miscarriage. Several also mentioned that she frequently talked about her engagement to Santos.

"She said that when this was all over, she would be on the outside and Bruno would be on the inside," said Autumn Fisher, a 24-year-old Hailey resident who was housed with Johnson for 16 days in February 2004.

"It was almost like she didn't comprehend that her parents were dead," Fisher said. "She didn't show any remorse about her mother, but she did cry about her father."

Finally, Timmothy Neville, a Blaine County School District speech and debate teacher testified Wednesday morning that Johnson had been part of National Honors Society debate team that performed mock trials on various crimes.

"She did very well," he said.

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