Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Supreme Court hears Johnson appeal

Long road ahead in Bellevue womanís attempt to have murder convictions overturned

Express Staff Writer

Sarah Johnson sheds a tear after being convicted in 2005 of two counts of first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of her parents. The Idaho Supreme Court heard arguments last Friday in Boise on Johnsonís appeal of the convictions. Photo by Willy Cook

Legal arguments last Friday before the Idaho Supreme Court in Boise represent only the tip of the iceberg in Sarah Johnson's battle to have her murder convictions overturned.

Attorneys from the State Appellate Public Defender's Office argued that Johnson was unjustly convicted because the jury was instructed that she could be convicted of first-degree murder even if she only "aided and abetted" the crime. Representing the state, the Idaho Attorney General's Office argued that the issue is irrelevant because under Idaho law an "aider and abetter" to murder is just as guilty as the one who did the actual killing.

"They simply aren't different crimes and there's no difference," said Deputy Attorney General Ken Jorgensen.

Jason Pintler, an attorney with the Public Defender's Office, told the high court that Johnson was never given notice in the charging document that she was accused of aiding and abetting the crime.

"In this country a defendant has a right to a fair trial," said Pintler. "If they're denied notice, then they can't make a fair defense."

The high court justices seemed unsympathetic to arguments on Johnson's behalf.

"Aiding and abetting and perpetrating are the same crime," said Vice Chief Justice Roger S. Burdick, who presided at Friday's hearing. "If you aided and abetted, you committed the same crime as if you pulled the trigger yourself."

Justice Linda Trout made a similar comment.

"It doesn't matter whether you did it or assisted someone else in doing it, it's still the same crime," she said.

Johnson was convicted on March 16, 2005, in the shooting deaths of her parents, Alan and Diane Johnson, at the couple's home in Bellevue on Sept. 2, 2003. She was 16 at the time. She is now 21 and serving two life sentences without the possibility of parole at the Pocatello Women's Correctional Facility.

The question of whether Johnson pulled the trigger herself or aided and abetted someone else in killing her parents was not explained when the jury rendered its guilty verdict.

Though not argued orally Friday before the Supreme Court, the question about how the jury reached its verdict is another issue before the court. The question is argued extensively in briefs submitted in the appeal by both parties in the case.

The state Public Defender's Office contends that jurors should have been instructed to determine in a guilty verdict if Johnson only aided and abetted or if she was actually the killer.

"We don't know what theory they convicted her under," Sara Thomas, an attorney with the Public Defender's Office, told the Idaho Mountain Express. "We don't know what essential facts they found."

The Public Defender's Office also contends that juror No. 85 should have been removed from the jury because he indicated prior to its being impaneled that he might not be able to follow the judge's instructions regarding consideration of evidence during the trial.

Following Friday's hearing, Burdick said the Supreme Court will consider the arguments and issue a written ruling later.

Thomas said the average length of time for a ruling to be issued is about six months.

"I've seen it go from three months to two years," she said.

If Johnson's appeal is denied, the case will likely come back to Blaine County 5th District Court, where a "post-conviction relief petition" has been filed on Johnson's behalf and is now on hold pending resolution of the appeal.

The petition makes other claims that Johnson did not receive a fair trial that are not covered in the allegations raised in the appeal.

Primarily, the petition claims that Johnson received ineffective legal counsel during her trial. That argument could be strengthened by the fact that attorney Bob Pangburn, who served as chief counsel to Johnson, was suspended in January for two years from practicing law by the Supreme Court. The suspension alleges "conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation" and other instances of attorney malfeasance.

The post-conviction relief petition also alleges that 5th District Court Judge Barry Wood was biased as trial judge against Johnson.

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