Friday, March 4, 2005

Expert testifies Johnson couldn't have been shooter

Defense expects to finish Tuesday or Wednesday

Express Staff Writer

Oregon-based crime scene analyst Michael Howard testified Wednesday for the defense in the Sarah Johnson double murder trial in Boise. Photo by Willy Cook

The defense for Sarah Johnson picked up steam this week when a forensic crime scene analyst testified the 18-year-old "could not have been the person who pulled the trigger" in the shooting deaths of her parents in their Bellevue home in 2003.

"You simply cannot be in that shooting environment and not get blood on you," said Oregon-based crime scene analyst Michael Howard during his testimony Wednesday. Crime scene investigators did not find any blood or tissue on Johnson in several examinations on Sept. 2, 2003, the day her parents were shot and killed in the bedroom of their Bellevue home.

Howard said the shooter would be standing in "a rain of blood." He said there was no sign of blood on Johnson's pajamas or the tops of her socks.

Additionally, Idaho State Police Crime Lab forensic scientist Cindy Hall testified Thursday there was no sign of blood or tissue on Johnson's hair, face, eyebrows, ears, earrings, piercings or on the backs of her ears. Hall examined Johnson around 5 p.m. on Sept. 2, 2003. The teen also had been examined hours earlier at St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center, where no blood was found.

As defense attorney Bob Pangburn promised in his opening argument Tuesday, the defense team is basing its argument on the premise: "No blood, no guilt." In other words, if no blood was found on Sarah Johnson, how could she be the person who shot Diane Johnson at close range with a hunting rifle?

For prosecutors, the answer to that question is that a sheet and comforter covered Diane Johnson's head at the time of the shooting. Experts for both sides have dueled on this point, and it will probably be one of the key issues for jurors to consider when they are expected to begin deliberations March 14 or 15.

Bellevue Marshall Randy Tremble testified Thursday that the quilt was covering the area where Diane Johnson's head should have been when he arrived on the scene. But, prompted by defense attorneys, he said it is possible that the body could have been covered after Diane Johnson's murder.

But Howard was adamant that the shooter could not have avoided the blood, and he said there is no evidence that a hole in the sheet covering Diane Johnson was a bullet hole.

"Blood tissue is being explosively projected up, out and all over," he said. "You simply cannot be in that room and not have blood on you...There is absolutely no evidence that that sheet is between the muzzle and Diane's head."

Thursday morning, another of Johnson's former cellmates testified that she heard another Johnson cellmate boasting that she'd lied to get her sentence reduced. April Montano, who was convicted of felony grand theft and now lives in Montana, said that Malinda Gonzales said in jail she would lie about Johnson.

Gonzales testified last week that Johnson had made a number of incriminating statements about herself while they were in jail together in the fall of 2003. But Montano may have chipped away at Gonzales' credibility.

"I came to like Sarah Johnson," Montano said. "We read our scriptures every night before bed."

Nonetheless, until a defense investigator confronted her, Montano said she did not talk about what she had heard Malinda Gonzales say.

"I pretty much kept to myself in jail, period," she said.

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