Friday, March 6, 2009

Judge allows new evidence discovery

Sarah Johnson's attorney claims more investigation needed in 2003 murders

Express Staff Writer

Christopher Simms

Fifth District Court Judge Barry Wood ruled Wednesday that the attorney for convicted murderer Sarah Johnson be allowed to have all information related to newly discovered fingerprint evidence in the case.

Hailey attorney Christopher Simms, appointed to represent Johnson in "post-conviction relief" proceedings, petitioned the court for the information after he became aware in February that previously unidentified fingerprints on the murder weapon, a .246 Winchester Magnum hunting rifle, had been identified as belonging to a Bellevue man.

Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Thomas said earlier that the man was once a roommate of a man who lived in the guest cottage at the Johnson home and that he had no involvement in the murders.

Johnson, now 22, was convicted in 2005 of killing her parents, Alan and Diane Johnson, at the couple's home in Bellevue in September 2003. She is serving two life sentences without the possibility of parole at the Pocatello Women's Correctional Center.

Johnson seeks a new trial in her post-conviction relief petition. She alleges that she had inadequate legal counsel during her trial and that Judge Wood was biased against her.

Wood's ruling will allow Simms to have investigative reports regarding the new fingerprint evidence, formal reports on the prints from the Idaho State Police Bureau of Criminal Identification, background information and records on the Bellevue man linked to the new evidence, and copies of photographs and "lift cards" from other fingerprint information found during the 2003 investigation at the crime scene.

Thomas said after Wednesday's hearing that he became aware of the new fingerprint identification in February after Simms raised the issue in a motion filed with the court. The Blaine County Sheriff's Office immediately investigated the Bellevue man, but has concluded that he had nothing to do with the murders.

"Investigators are confident that there is no connection between this person and Sarah Johnson," Thomas told the Idaho Mountain Express last week. "The identification of this print does nothing to lesson the guilt of Sarah Johnson, nor does it undermine the original investigation."

Thomas had already given Simms the new investigative reports prior to Wednesday's court hearing, and he did not object to allowing new discovery in the case.

"He (Simms) has a right to that stuff," Thomas said.

Simms said in court that he had read the new investigative reports but was not satisfied with the scope of the investigation.

"Based on what I see here, I would suggest that there's need for further investigation," he said.

Simms, who has a public defender's contract with Blaine County, said he has spent much of his time working on the Johnson case since it was assigned to him several months ago.

"My review of the evidence has been intense over the last three months," Simms said. "My opinion after reviewing that evidence is that Ms. Johnson is not guilty of shooting her parents. I'm anticipating a new trial."

Terry Smith:

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