Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Will Sarah Johnson get a new trial?

Decision from judge not likely until April

Express Staff Writer

Sarah Johnson, facing the rest of her life in prison, found occasion to smile last week during a court hearing in Twin Falls to determine if she is entitled to a new trial. Her attorney, Christopher Simms, at left, claims she did not receive a fair trial in 2005 when she was convicted of killing her parents in Bellevue in 2003. Photo by Willy Cook

A topic of conversation during the past few days in the Wood River Valley is whether Sarah Johnson will get a new trial. Many people even question whether she is guilty, or was it someone else who shot her parents to death at their Bellevue home on Sept. 2, 2003?

Hailey attorney Christopher Simms, who was appointed by the court to represent Johnson in post-conviction relief proceedings, has poked holes in the state's contention that she was justly prosecuted, tried and convicted, but will it be enough to convince 5th District Court Judge G. Richard Bevan that the trial in 2005 was unfair?

The public won't likely know until early April. After listening to four days of testimony last week in his Twin Falls courtroom, Bevan gave Simms and state attorneys Jessica Lorello and Kenneth Jorgensen a schedule of what will happen next. Lorello and Jorgensen are deputy attorneys with the Idaho Attorney General's Office.

According to the schedule, "findings of fact" are due from the attorneys on Jan. 31 and final closing arguments are due Feb. 11. The judge will officially take the case "under advisement" on March 1 and will have 30 days to reach a decision.

Johnson is serving two life prison terms without the possibility of parole for the murders of Alan and Diane Johnson. Now 23, she was 16 at the time of the murders.

Bevan doesn't have to determine Johnson's innocence or guilt. Instead, he only has to determine if she received a fair trial or if new evidence that came to light a few years after her conviction suggests strongly enough that someone else may have committed the crime.

Simms' main target has been Johnson's trial attorney, Bob Pangburn, who has been suspended from practicing law in Idaho and is now working as a substitute school teacher in the Boise area.

Simms alleged during last week's hearings that Pangburn committed numerous errors during the trial, including failing his client by not being adequately prepared and spending too much of his time in interviews on national television, by not cross-examining Johnson's former boyfriend Bruno Santos, and by not cross-examining Santos' mother, Consuelo Cedeno, a Hailey woman who provided her son with an alibi for the morning of the murders.

"It couldn't be more apparent that Bob Pangburn failed her and changed the dynamics of the trial," Simms said in a closing statement to the court on Friday.

Simms also chided law enforcement, alleging that investigators focused primarily on Johnson as the killer to the exclusion of other possible suspects, including Santos, who is now 26 and incarcerated in the Blaine County jail on three felony drug charges.

Simms also claims that new fingerprint evidence suggests that Johnson is innocent.

Fingerprint evidence

Fingerprint expert Robert Kerchusky, a former FBI agent who now lives in Eagle, testified at the court hearing Thursday that Johnson was not the last person to touch the murder weapon before it was used to kill Johnson's parents.

Instead, Kerchusky said he believes the last person to touch the gun before the murders was a friend of Mel Speegle, who rented an apartment above the Johnson garage in Bellevue and was the owner of the .264 caliber Winchester hunting rifle used to kill the Johnsons.

"In my opinion, Christopher Hill was the last person to touch the gun," Kerchusky said, referring to a man identified in court documents as Christopher Kevin Hill, a friend of Speegle whose address according to court records is in the East Magic Reservoir area.

Both Kerchusky and a fingerprint expert from the Idaho State Police forensics laboratory testified that Hill's finger or palm prints were found on the rifle, on a scope that was removed from the gun just prior to the shootings, on a live .264-caliber round found at Speegle's apartment and on a plastic insert used to hold cartridges in ammunition boxes.

However, Kerchusky and ISP fingerprint expert Tina Walthall did not agree on when the fingerprints were left.

The prints were discovered on the items during the initial investigation into the murders but were not identified as Hill's until several years after the trial.

Simms claims the prints constitute new evidence that has not been adequately investigated. Lorello and Jorgensen have argued that Hill's touching of the murder weapon and other items occurred well before the murders and does not constitute evidence that clears Johnson of the crimes.

Police investigators said the murder weapon was taken from Speegle's apartment just prior to the shootings. The scope was removed before the shootings and left in Speegle's apartment. Johnson's fingerprints were never found on the weapon but investigators believe she was wearing gloves.

Earlier Thursday, Simms played video recordings of police interviews in 2009 with both Speegle and Hill. The interviews were conducted by Ketchum Police Chief Steve Harkins, who was a detective at the time with the Blaine County Sheriff's Office.

Speegle told Harkins that Hill was a close friend who had helped him move to the Johnson apartment in 2002, about a year before the murders. Speegle said Hill helped move both guns and ammunition and touched the items then.

Speegle described Hill as "really laid back, a real gentle guy—almost too gentle."

"I fully trust him—I have no reason not to trust him," Speegle told Harkins.

Hill acknowledged in his interview with Harkins that he had touched the gun and other items when he helped Speegle move. He also said he handled the gun and scope on another occasion.

"I took it out one time and tried to sight it in," Hill said. "I don't want to shoot it again. It's got quite a wallop to it. It's hard to sight in."

Hill further told Harkins that he was not well acquainted with the Johnsons.

"I didn't really know them," Hill said. "I met them once. Mel took me over one time."

By Speegle's and Hill's accounts, Hill last touched the gun and other items about a year before the murders. However, Kerchusky testified that he believes Hill touched the items much later than that.

"If it wasn't a fresh print, you wouldn't have the quality of the print that we have," Kerchusky said. "In my opinion, the prints were fresh prints and not latent prints. Otherwise, they would have dried up over a long period of time."

On cross-examination from Jorgensen, Kerchusky acknowledged that there is no scientific evidence that states how long fingerprints will stay on an object, but said his experience shows that they would deteriorate or be of poor quality within a year.

Jorgensen asked Kerchusky if he believes Hill was the last person to touch the gun and scope prior to the murders.

"That's my opinion," Kerchusky said.

Walthall was called as a state witness immediately after Kerchusky's testimony.

She said a lot of factors determine how long a print will remain and be identifiable, including whether the print was left by perspiration or something such as dust or paint on a person's hand. Other factors that can affect the longevity of a print are the type of surface it was left on, temperature variations and exposure to sunlight, moisture or wind.

"It could possibly be there a very long time if nothing happened to it," Walthall said.

She said the prints on the items in the Johnson case were all on hard, solid objects, and "it's possible for a print to remain on those surfaces for more than a year."

Walthall also didn't agree with Kerchusky on the quality of the Hill palm and fingerprints, though she acknowledged they were of high enough quality to be seen with the naked eye.

"They were of good enough quality to lift and identify, but they were far from high quality," she said.

In his closing statement Friday, Simms described Kerchusky as the "foremost fingerprint expert in the Northwest."

"He knows more about fingerprints than anybody else in the country," Simms said.

Hill has not been charged with involvement in the murders.

Terry Smith:

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