Friday, June 1, 2012

Johnson case could cost county more

Prosecutor criticizes attempt to exonerate convicted murderer


By TERRY SMITH
Express Staff Writer

Jim Thomas Sarah Johnson

A Boise attorney who has been working without charge to have convicted murderer Sarah Johnson exonerated is now seeking court appointment to represent her. If the appointment is made, Blaine County would have to pay again for Johnson's legal expenses.

Arguments on the appointment are scheduled for Monday by telephone conference before presiding Judge G. Richard Bevan.

Attorney Dennis Benjamin, of the Boise law firm of Nevin, Benjamin, McKay and Bartlett, is seeking to have post-conviction proceedings reopened in the Johnson case. The state of Idaho, represented by the Idaho Attorney General's Office, is opposed.

In earlier proceedings, Bevan ruled in 2011 that Johnson is not entitled to a new trial. Benjamin is asking the court to vacate that decision, arguing that new DNA analytical methods, not available when Johnson was tried, could prove his client is innocent.

Johnson, now 25, is currently serving two life prison sentences without the possibility of parole for the murders in 2003 of her parents, Alan and Diane Johnson, at the couple's home in Bellevue. Sarah Johnson was 16 at the time. She was found guilty and sentenced following a jury trial in 2005.

Benjamin, with the assistance of the Idaho Innocence Project, has been working pro bono on the case for about a year. In addition to his DNA claims, Benjamin is arguing that Johnson has had ineffective legal counsel who committed numerous errors throughout the nine years that her case has been before the courts.

In court documents, Deputy Attorney General Kenneth Jorgensen has characterized Benjamin's claims as "frivolous."

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Meanwhile, Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Thomas, who prosecuted Johnson at trial, issued a statement to the Idaho Mountain Express criticizing efforts on the part of Benjamin and others to have Johnson exonerated.

"Although her new counsel and his cohorts claim they have spent 'hundreds' of hours and 'believe in their heart' that Sarah Johnson is completely innocent, the objective record proves the contrary," Thomas stated. "The Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney's Office along with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies have spent multiple thousands of hours procuring evidence, following leads and enlisting the assistance of world-class experts to procure the evidence that proved Sarah Johnson murdered her parents.

"A jury of 12 citizens decided, not based upon emotion but on admissible evidence, that Sarah Johnson committed the murders of Alan and Diane Johnson.

"Since her conviction, Sarah Johnson has had the benefit of hindsight to unsuccessfully attack the conviction and sentence through appellate and post-conviction attorneys at taxpayer expense. I am confident the conviction and sentence will be upheld despite Sarah Johnson's recycled claim of innocence and allegations of attorney misdeeds."

Previous post-conviction proceedings, when Hailey attorney Christopher Simms was court-appointed Johnson counsel, cost Blaine County more than $92,000. According to Thomas, Johnson's trial in 2005 cost the county $1.04 million.

Terry Smith: tsmith@mtexpress.com




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