The attorney for convicted murderer Sarah Johnson attacked the credibility of Bruno Santos' mother, the woman who provided her son with an alibi, in court proceedings Thursday to determine if Johnson is entitled to a new trial for the murders of her parents in 2003.
Hailey resident Consuelo Cedeno, the mother of Bruno Santos, was called to testify in the third day of court hearings in Twin Falls before 5th District Court Judge G. Richard Bevan on Johnson's petition for post-conviction relief.
Johnson's attorney, Christopher Simms, is alleging that she did not receive a fair trial because of "ineffective legal counsel" who failed to adequately prepare for trial or question witnesses on key information during the trial. He further alleges that the trial was unfair because investigators quickly identified Johnson as the murderer and did not adequately investigate other possible suspects.
Convicted by a jury in Boise in 2005, Johnson, now 23, is currently serving two life prison sentences without the possibility of parole for the shooting deaths of Alan and Diane Johnson in Bellevue on the morning of Sept. 2, 2003. She was 16 at the time.
Simms got little new information out of Cedeno in Thursday's court proceedings. Instead, Cedeno claimed that she could not remember much of anything from 2003 concerning her son, the former boyfriend of Sarah Johnson and originally the prime suspect.
Simms explained to the court that Cedeno's testimony was important to his case because she provided Santos with an alibi.
According to trial records, Cedeno testified then that Santos, who lived with her at the Balmoral apartments in Hailey, was home by midnight on Sept. 1, 2003.
In court Thursday, Simms asked Cedeno if she remembered testifying at the trial.
Speaking through a court interpreter, Cedeno said: "I don't remember. I don't remember anything."
"Ma'am, are you telling me that you don't remember sitting in front of a jury and testifying in Boise in a murder trial?" Simms asked Cedeno.
"I remember going to Boise, but that was many years ago," Cedeno said.
"It's just a simple question, that do you remember testifying?" Simms said.
"You all have the paperwork—you can tell whether I testified or not," Cedeno said. "I can't, I don't remember, I don't understand."
"Ma'am, do you expect us to believe that?" Simms said.
"I don't remember," Cedeno repeated.
"Is he living with you now?" Simms said.
"No, he's in jail," Cedeno said.
Simms then asked Cedeno if she had told police during the murder investigation that "Bruno lied to her all the time."
"If I told the police that, then they should have a paper," Cedeno said. "I told you many times that I don't remember anything. I'm sorry, it was a long time ago. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry—I don't remember anything."
Simms didn't get a lot of information out of Santos either, who was called to the stand after his mother's testimony. On the advice of his attorney, Dan Dolan, Santos exercised his Fifth Amendment rights and chose not to answer questions regarding possible former gang affiliation, his relationship to Sarah Johnson, where he was born or even how long he has lived in the United States.
Santos, 26, was brought into the court in orange jail attire with ankle and wrist restraints. He was transported to the hearing from the Blaine County jail, where he has been held since early summer on three felony drug charges. He is also accused by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency of being in the United States illegally.
Santos did answer a question about his whereabouts at the time of the murders, saying "the only thing I remember is that I was home early that night and I was asleep."
Asked by Simms whether police told him early in the investigation that they didn't believe he was guilty of the murders, Santos said: "And truly I'm not."
Testimony continued Thursday afternoon regarding the fingerprint evidence found on the murder weapon after the trial. The hearing is expected to end today, but it is not known whether Bevan will make a ruling then or take the case under advisement.
Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling testified Wednesday that Santos, rather than Johnson, was the initial prime suspect in the murders.
"We worked very, very hard to put Bruno at the scene of the crime, but we were unable to put him there at all," Femling said.
He said Santos had been the main suspect because evidence showed that Alan and Diane Johnson had attempted to put an end to his relationship with Sarah Johnson and had threatened a few days before the murders to press charges against Santos for statutory rape.
Femling acknowledged that statements made by Sarah Johnson on the morning of the murders aroused his suspicions, but testified that it was "weeks" later after forensic evidence was received that he decided she was the killer.
"I think what the crime scene was telling us pretty quickly is that it was not committed from someone outside," Femling said. "It was not a random act. It was committed by someone familiar with the house, with the contents of the house. What I was hearing from people talking to Sarah was not consistent with what the crime scene was telling me."
Evidence showed that Diane Johnson was shot in the head while likely sleeping in her bed and that Alan Johnson was shot while taking a shower in a bathroom adjoining the bedroom. He may have even seen the shooter and grabbed hold of the gun barrel before he was shot in the chest.
Evidence showed that he likely struggled to get out of the shower, then staggered into the bedroom and fell beside the bed, where he died.
There was no sign of forced entry into the home and nothing was ever determined to have been stolen.
Sarah Johnson was at the home at the time of the murders, but Femling testified that her account of what had happened was inconsistent with evidence from the crime scene.
"The crime scene will tell you what happened," Femling said. "The crime scene will tell you who did it. It just takes a while to get there."
Femling said he knew Sarah Johnson prior to the murders because she had attended school with his son. He said that relationship may have even originally clouded his judgment that she was the murderer.
"To believe that a 16-year-old could have pulled this off was hard to believe," he said. "I couldn't focus on Sarah as the killer—it was just too hard to grasp."
Femling testified that nothing has occurred since the original investigation that has changed his opinion that Johnson committed the murders.
"I believe solely that Sarah Johnson acted alone in killing Alan and Diane," he said. "I have no doubt in my mind. I can't give you an exact time frame when I decided Sarah acted alone and that Bruno wasn't involved, but I can tell you for sure that there was no evidence at all of Bruno being at that crime scene."
Bob Pangburn, the lead defense attorney at Johnson's 2005 trial, denied at the hearing Tuesday afternoon that errors were committed by the defense during the trial.
"I've thought about this case many, many times and I think we did a good job given what we had to work with," Pangburn said.
Pangburn acknowledged that he "surrendered" his license to practice law in Oregon in 2004 while he was preparing for the Johnson trial and further admitted that he is now suspended from practicing law in Idaho.
Simms alleged that Pangburn surrendered his license in Oregon because he was being investigated for billing clients for services not rendered. Pangburn didn't admit to the allegation but said instead that he surrendered his license "so that it would not cause any interruption to my representation of Sarah."
Pangburn said he is now working as a substitute school teacher in the Boise area.
He testified that he was disappointed during the trial that private investigators hired by the defense team didn't come up with evidence linking Santos to the murders.
He further said that he still believes Johnson to be innocent.
"I believe that the perpetrators in this case were associates of Mr. Santos," Pangburn said.