Fifth District Court Judge G. Richard Bevan on Tuesday appointed the Roark Law Firm of Hailey to represent convicted murderer Sarah Johnson in new post-conviction relief proceedings aimed at freeing her from prison.
The appointment puts the case in the hands of attorney Keith Roark, who has extensive experience in handling murder cases. Firm partner Douglas Nelson also has experience in murder cases, but it was unclear Thursday what role he will have in the Johnson case.
Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Thomas did not complain about the appointment, but in an email Wednesday to the Idaho Mountain Express he suggested a possible conflict of interest on the part of Nelson.
"Given the fact that Doug Nelson of the Roark firm was a witness at trial and would remain a witness in the event the case was retired gives rise to a concern that a conflict of interest possibly exists," Thomas wrote. "I assume Mr. Roark thoroughly researched the issue regarding the prohibition of lawyers in the same firm acting as a witness as well as an advocate in a case and is confident with his ability to keep those issues separate, and I will respect his decision to accept the case."
Neither Roark nor Nelson could be reached for comment by press deadline Thursday.
Johnson, now 25, is currently serving two life prison sentences without the possibility of parole for the first-degree murders of her parents, Alan and Diane Johnson, at the couple's home in Bellevue in 2003. Sarah Johnson was 16 at the time.
Nelson briefly represented Johnson immediately after the murders and testified at her trial in 2005 about his observations of procedural matters when Johnson was served with a detention warrant.
The Roark Law Firm takes on a second post-conviction relief attempt for Johnson. Judge Bevan has not yet agreed to reopen the Johnson case, but ruled in May that new claims raised by Boise attorney's Dennis Benjamin and Deborah Whipple merit attention.
In court documents filed in April, Benjamin and Whipple, who have worked pro bono on the Johnson case for almost a year, urged reopening the case, claiming that new DNA analytical techniques could exonerate Johnson and identify the real killer.
Benjamin said Wednesday that he is pleased with the appointment of the Roark Law Firm.
"That's great, they're good lawyers and good guys," Benjamin said.
Asked if he intends to stay involved in the case, Benjamin said, "I hope so. Deborah and I are certainly willing to assist Sarah in any way under the direction of her attorneys, without getting paid. If they ask us to do something, well, certainly we will."
Benjamin and Whipple have claimed that Johnson is innocent. They are supported in their claims by the Idaho Innocence Project, which devotes its work to freeing people from prison that the organization believes are innocent.
The Roark Law Firm's appointment comes at the expense of Blaine County, which is required by Bevan's ruling to foot the bill for Johnson-related legal expenses.
County Clerk JoLynn Drage said Wednesday that the county budgeted $10,000 for Johnson's legal representation for fiscal 2012 and is budgeting $50,000 for fiscal 2013. But how much the county will have to pay remains uncertain.
"I still have a lot of unanswered questions," Drage said. "There are a lot of unknowns that would help me a lot with budgeting."
New expenses to Blaine County follow an earlier post-conviction relief attempt by Hailey attorney Christopher Simms, who was court-appointed in 2008 to represent Johnson's first attempt at exoneration or a new trial. That attempt failed and in 2011 Bevan ruled there was not sufficient evidence to warrant a new trial.
Drage said the earlier post-conviction proceedings cost Blaine County $98,558 for Johnson's legal representation. Johnson's trial in 2005 cost the county just over $1 million.
"It's been a little spendy, but I don't think there's any alternative," Drage said.
Terry Smith: email@example.com