Friday, August 21, 2009

Costs continue to accrue in Johnson case

Court-appointed attorney allocated 1,200 hours

Express Staff Writer

Sarah Johnson

Blaine County has paid Sarah Johnson's court-appointed attorney more than $42,000 in the past year, but costs could go much higher as litigation continues in the convicted murderer's bid for a new trial.

Hailey attorney Christopher Simms, appointed to represent Johnson in August 2008, has been allocated 1,200 hours for the task, payable at $100 per hour.

According to court records, the county has so far paid Simms $42,400, which does not include pending invoices. Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Thomas said costs will likely be much higher.

"This will be only a fraction of the costs if the court were to ultimately allow various expert witnesses, additional testing and discovery and protracted evidentiary hearings as is anticipated to be sought by defense counsel," Thomas wrote in an e-mail earlier this week to the Idaho Mountain Express.

Nonetheless, Thomas said Thursday that Simms is basically doing what the court appointed him to do.

"He's got to do what he feels is in the best interest of his client," Thomas said.

Simms is representing Johnson in post-conviction relief proceedings, wherein a convicted person has the legal right to seek a new trial by bringing new evidence or arguments into a case. The process differs from an appeal, when only issues raised during trial can be considered.

Johnson's appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court was denied in 2008 and the U.S. Supreme Court later declined to hear the case.

Johnson, now 22, is serving two life sentences for the shooting deaths of her parents, Alan and Diane Johnson, at the couple's home in Bellevue on Sept. 2, 2003.

Fifth District Court Judge Barry Wood, who presided at the trial, is also presiding judge for Johnson's post-conviction relief proceedings. Funding for the proceedings, however, is being handled in a separate case by District Court Judge Robert J. Elgee, who is sometimes referred to as the "money judge."

Simms was allocated 600 hours of time under his public defender contract with Blaine County. Over the objections of Blaine County commissioners, Elgee awarded an additional 600 hours for Johnson's defense in October 2008. At that time, Elgee declined to award funding for a second attorney for Johnson.

Simms is alleging that Johnson is innocent, that her constitutional rights were violated, that she had ineffective legal counsel during trial and that new evidence will identify the real killer.

Regarding new evidence, Simms has thus far identified an earlier unidentified fingerprint on the murder weapon and produced a statement from a witness who alleged evidence tampering.

Thomas said neither the fingerprint nor the witness statement are credible evidence.

"I've previewed everything that's gone on and I don't see anything out there to change the guilty verdict or my personal opinion," Thomas said. "If there was anything out there, I'd be the first to try to bring it out and get it to the court. After spending so much time on this case, I'm absolutely sure she killed her parents."

Simms declined to comment on the case, other than to say, "I'm under contract to defend her and under ethical obligation to defend her to the best of my ability."

According to court records, initial investigation and trial costs for Johnson were $1,040,683, which does not include salaries or overtime pay of various agencies involved in the case.

No new court dates for the case are currently scheduled.

Terry Smith:

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