Friday, July 1, 2005

Johnson sentenced to two life terms

Judge addresses 18-year-old convicted murderer for an hour

Express Staff Writer

Judge Barry Wood addressed Sarah Johnson for the better part of an hour Thursday before sentencing her to the rest of her life in prison. Photo by Willy Cook

Sarah Johnson's family members gave each other hugs and shed tears following the 18-year-old Bellevue resident's sentencing Thursday afternoon to two fixed life prison terms, plus 15 years, for shooting and killing her parents, Alan and Diane Johnson, on Sept. 2, 2003.

The sentence was handed down by 5th District Judge Barry Wood, who said he believes the young woman is a threat to society. He did not give Johnson the possibility for parole and also saddled her with $10,000 in fines, $5,000 of which is to be paid to her brother, Matt Johnson.

Wood talked for nearly an hour about the rationale behind his ruling. Most of the time, he addressed the shackled Johnson eye-to-eye.

"You had it all. You had a nice family, nice school, car, freedom. You had it all," Wood said. "In the final analysis, you had lots of options ... You had all kinds of ways to not go down this road, and, yet, you elected the worst possible courses of conduct. And it's the most devastating, harshest option.

"Are you a safety risk? There is a lot of evidence here to suggest you are a significant safety risk ... I have to come down on the side of protection of society in this risk analysis. The risk to society outweighs your individual needs and wants."

Wood handed down the sentence following a day and a half of testimony from Johnson's nuclear and extended family, her adoptive family and from law enforcement officers who worked on the lengthy investigation that led to her arrest. The sentencing caps 21 months that included investigations, court hearings and a seven-week trial.

The proceedings have cost Blaine County taxpayers close to $1 million, but that does not include the salaries of local police officers and Blaine County attorneys.

While Johnson's adoptive mother and sister said they would be there for Johnson if she were released from prison, her brother and extended family sought a permanent prison sentence.

Prosecutors, too, sought a life sentence.

"When I think about this case, I think the only word I think about is 'frustrating,'" said Blaine County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Justin Whatcott. "It's been frustrating for everyone involved.

"None of us chose to be here. We didn't choose to be involved in this case. She put us here. She's the reason we've had to go through this horrific case. For everyone who has had to deal with this case, the question is: Why? Why did you do this? That's all anyone wants to know. Why did this have to happen to two decent people."

Whatcott said that Johnson did not give her parents the chance to live out their lives the way they should have, and "there is no reason why she should be given the opportunity."

Defense attorney Bob Pangburn asked the court to impose a 15-year fixed prison term.

"If you give her fixed life, all of the opportunity to utilize the parole system and give her an opportunity to work toward parole, to have the hope, to be successful in the future, to return to the community as a productive person—if you give her fixed life, you take all that away."

Johnson was convicted by a jury of 12 Ada County residents on March 16 for using a high-powered hunting rifle to shoot her sleeping mother in the head and then shoot her father as he emerged from the shower. The shootings occurred at the family's Bellevue home.

"I recognize that what everyone here wants is something I can't deliver," Wood said. "I can not turn back the clock. I can not return the lives of your parents. I can only go forward."

As he explained the reasoning that went into the sentence, Wood made clear that he agreed without question with the jury's guilty verdict, and he stressed that he believes Johnson would pose a continued risk to society if she were released from prison.

"I have searched and searched, and I can find no rational basis as to why your parents were killed," he said. "Your family members have testified that they are fearful of retribution because they have given you a reason by testifying against you."

He pointed out that Johnson displays no history of significant mental illness, was raised in a good home and was not an abused child. To this day, she denies any involvement in the murders.

"No one saw this coming," Wood said. "All of those things, in my mind," contribute to "a significant risk of danger ... A lesser sentence would trivialize these two lives. Society can not tolerate, and will not tolerate, a child rebelling against their parents and killing them, the very people who were trying to protect you."

In determining a sentence, the court appointed a Twin Falls psychiatrist to evaluate Johnson. Dr. Richard Worst evaluated her for nine hours.

"I did not find anything in the data I collected that there would be anything indicating that she would be prone to violence," Worst said.

Worst pointed out that living in jail for the last two years has already affected the development of the still-growing young woman. But the crux of Worst's evaluation was that Johnson did not admit any involvement in her parents' deaths.

"I tried to discuss the killings with her," he said. "She said she did not commit the killings. She did not admit anything."

Until she admits to the crimes, there will not be a way to treat her, Worst said.

"Assuming she did do the crime, at some point she'll admit it, and there will be grist for the mill, so to speak," he said.

Wood attempted to re-create part of the scene that led to the Johnson killings.

"Are you the shooter? The jury found you were," Wood said. "When I make the comment that I think the evidence in this case is strong, it is. It is really strong. You had a chance to abandon, to step out of this senselessness. Presumably, you had a conversation with your father before you shot him. And you had to look him in the eye. You shot him in the lung.

"There's only one story to be told here, so to speak, and it's sad."

Wood said he is a big believer in rehabilitation.

"I'm a big believer in hope, but there's certain conduct that crosses the line. We're not talking, for instance, about a residue methamphetamine case. We're talking about one of the most severe crimes known to man.

"There is evidence that indicates she's not seeking rehabilitation, that she's just trying to get off. It's all about Sarah, and it's all about Sarah now."

And Wood, too, asked the central question of the two-day sentencing hearing.

"Why? It's the ring that can't be taken out of the bell. Everybody in this room is asking why, why, why? It defies explanation, except for the explanation of your selfish protection of your relationship with (your former boyfriend)."

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