The attorney for convicted murderer Sarah Johnson said in court Tuesday that his client was unfairly convicted for the death of her parents, and put most of the blame on investigators for not looking at other suspects and on Johnson's trial attorney for not being prepared.
"But [attorney Bob] Pangburn now, he was busy talking to CNN, to Nancy Grace, rather than preparing for this young lady's trial," Hailey attorney Christopher Simms said.
Pangburn was Johnson's lead attorney during her trial in 2005.
Simms was speaking in Twin Falls before 5th District Judge G. Richard Bevan in a hearing to determine if Johnson is entitled to a new trial for the murders of her parents, Alan and Diane Johnson, on Sept. 2, 2003, at the couple's home in Bellevue. Johnson, who was 16 at the time of the murders, is currently serving two life prison sentences without the possibility of parole.
Johnson, now 23, was led into Bevan's courtroom shortly before the hearing started at 10 a.m. Wearing an orange jail jumpsuit and with ankle and wrist restraints, she looked more mature and thinner than she did when tried in Boise in 2005. She sat silently but appeared attentive during Tuesday morning's proceedings. The only words she spoke were acknowledgement of who she was when Bevan asked if she was Sarah Johnson.
The hearing is scheduled to last through Friday. Simms, who was court-appointed as Johnson's attorney in 2008, is arguing that she did not receive a fair trial because she had "ineffective legal counsel" and further that new fingerprint evidence on the murder weapon, a .264-caliber Winchester hunting rifle, suggests that Johnson wasn't the killer.
In an opening statement to the court, Simms said Johnson's conviction and imprisonment was a second tragedy in the murders of Alan and Diane Johnson.
"There is no question that on Sept. 2, 2003, there was a terrible tragedy that happened in Blaine County," Simms said. "But another person has had her life taken away from her, and she's sitting right here, a shadow of what she used to be. I submit to this court that there were two tragedies in this case and the second was the most terrible. This was a failure of the system."
Simms said investigators from the Blaine County Sheriff's Office and Idaho State Police locked on to Johnson as the shooter shortly after the murders and didn't adequately investigate other possible suspects, such as Johnson's former boyfriend, Bruno Santos, a 26-year-old Mexican national accused of being in the United States illegally. Santos is currently jailed in Blaine County on three felony drug charges.
"They simply thought they had the answer and they never deviated from that," Simms said.
Simms argued that there was no blood on Johnson following the murders and no traces of gunpowder residue on her, and that her fingerprints were not found on the murder weapon.
He put much of the blame for Johnson's conviction on Pangburn, referring to his suspensions from practicing law in Oregon and Idaho.
Simms said Pangburn failed to call relevant witnesses during the trial, failed to question some witnesses regarding important information, failed to act on information uncovered by a defense investigator and failed in preparation for the trial.
"I submit to you, your honor, that there will be no question that defense counsel was inefficient," said Simms, referring to the case he will present to Bevan this week.
Simms intends to call some 20 people to testify. His first witness was Patrick Dunn a private investigator who assisted with Johnson's trial defense.
"We had a whole host of problems," Dunn said.
He told the court that Pangburn was unprepared for trial and did not attend most of the daily strategy planning sessions with Dunn and defense counsel Mark Rader. In one instance, Dunn said, he and Rader waited two weeks for discovery materials from the prosecuting attorney's office only to find out that Pangburn had the materials all along.
"The materials ended up in Pangburn's trunk and he'd been carrying them around for a couple of weeks," Dunn said.
The prosecution is being represented at the hearing by the Idaho Attorney General's Office.
For more on this story as it develops, go to www.mtexpress.com and see the Friday, Dec. 10, edition of the Express.