Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Attorney seeks to reopen Johnson case

Idaho Innocence Project joins cause to free convicted murderer

Express Staff Writer

Express file photo Convicted murderer Sarah Johnson listens at a 5th District Court hearing in December 2010 to determine whether she would receive a new trial.

Seven years after Sarah Marie Johnson was sentenced to two life prison terms without the possibility of parole for the murder of her parents, a Boise attorney and the Idaho Innocence Project are battling to have her freed.

"We believe Sarah's innocent," attorney Dennis Benjamin told the Idaho Mountain Express on Tuesday. "I believe that in my heart. I'm suggesting that she's completely innocent."

Benjamin, a partner in the Boise law firm of Nevin, Benjamin, McKay & Bartlett, and a specialist in post-conviction-relief cases, has been working on the Johnson case pro bono—that is without charge—since last summer.

Benjamin is joined in his cause by assistant counsel Deborah Whipple, of the Idaho Innocence Project, headed by nationally renowned DNA expert Greg Hampikian, and by fingerprint expert Robert Kerchusky, a former FBI agent who has previously claimed that fingerprint evidence found in connection with the Johnson case points to another killer.

"There's a lot of people working on this," Benjamin said. "Hundreds and hundreds of hours have been given, not just by Deborah and me, but by others involved who believe she's innocent."

Benjamin filed several documents in April in Blaine County 5th District Court, seeking to have Judge G. Richard Bevan "vacate" his decision of more than a year ago denying Johnson a new trial.

Benjamin alleges in new court filings that some DNA evidence was not tested in the original criminal case, that new DNA analytical methods can now be used to identify other possible suspects and that Johnson has had "ineffective legal counsel" throughout the nine years of court proceedings involving her.

Johnson, now 25, was 16 when she was charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the shootings of her parents, Alan and Diane Johnson, at the couple's home in Bellevue on Sept. 2, 2003. She was convicted of both counts by a jury in 2005 and sentenced by Judge Barry Wood to two life prison sentences without the possibility of parole.

Benjamin said Tuesday that the sentences imposed by Wood are excessive.

"It's just too inhumane to believe, even if she is guilty," he said. "But the main point is she is not."

Bevan, who took over as presiding judge in the Johnson post-conviction-relief case when Wood retired in 2009, has yet to rule on whether he will allow the case to be reopened.

The Idaho Attorney General's Office, which is representing the state of Idaho in Johnson court proceedings, declined Monday to comment on Benjamin's filings. However, Deputy Attorney General Kenneth Jorgensen filed a response on April 16 to Benjamin's claims, arguing that the case should not be reopened because the claims are "time-barred."

Neither Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Thomas, who prosecuted the criminal case against Johnson, nor Blaine County Sheriff Gene Ramsey, whose agency investigated the murders, responded to an Express request for comment on the Benjamin filings by press deadline Tuesday.

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Idaho Innocence Project

Hampikian, director of the Idaho Innocence Project, said the organization has taken the position that Johnson is innocent.

A professor of forensic biology at Boise State University, Hampikian became nationally and internationally known in 2011 when he used DNA evidence to help free U.S. citizen Amanda Knox from a prison cell in Italy, where she was serving a 26-year sentence for the murder of her roommate.

In an interview Tuesday, Hampikian told the Express that there are similarities in the Johnson and Knox cases because both involved women with no history of violence or mental illness.

Hampikian was paid as a DNA consultant for the defense team during Johnson's criminal trial, but is now seeking her acquittal without financial compensation.

"I'm one of the people who's continued on with that case because I believe she's innocent because the evidence against her was not enough to convict her," Hampikian said. "The most telling evidence to me was that there was no trace of blood on her hair, her body or her clothing, and they tested her right after the murders."

Hampikian has filed an affidavit, along with the new Benjamin court documents, stating that DNA tests, using newly developed techniques, should be conducted to identify other possible suspects in the Johnson murders.

Benjamin has also argued in his filings for new DNA tests, stating that "the requested testing has the scientific potential to produce new, non-cumulative evidence that Sarah is innocent."

He further claims that attorneys throughout the history of the Johnson case, including original defense attorneys Bob Pangburn and Mark Rader, the State Appellate Public Defender's Office, which represented Johnson appeals to the Idaho Supreme Court, and Hailey attorney Christopher Simms, who previously represented Johnson in post-conviction relief proceedings, committed numerous errors in their representation.

Benjamin accuses Pangburn, who was court-appointed, of "conflict of interest," claiming he was constantly, before and during the trial, at odds with Blaine County regarding payment for his services.

Terry Smith:

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