An Idaho Supreme Court’s ruling this week rejecting an appeal from convicted murderer Sarah Johnson clears the way for new arguments regarding her possible innocence to be considered now in Blaine County 5th District Court.
The Idaho high court on Tuesday issued an opinion upholding a 2011 5th District Court ruling by Judge G. Richard Bevan that denied Johnson’s claims in post-conviction relief proceedings that she was denied a fair trial when tried and convicted in 2005. In her post-conviction relief petition, Johnson was seeking a new trial, claiming that she had incompetent legal defense and that fingerprint evidence found on the murder weapon after Johnson’s conviction suggested that someone else killed her parents in 2003.
Tuesday’s ruling was the second time Johnson’s appeals have been rejected by the Idaho Supreme Court. In 2008, the court upheld her 2005 first-degree murder conviction
Johnson is currently serving two life prison sentences without the possibility of parole for the murder of her parents, Alan and Diane Johnson, at the couple’s home in Bellevue on Sept. 2, 2003. Sarah Johnson was 16 at the time. She is now 27.
Lead counsel in the appeal to the Supreme Court of Bevin’s 2011 ruling was Boise attorney Dennis Benjamin, a specialist in post-conviction relief cases who was court appointed to represent Johnson. Benjamin argued the case before the Supreme Court at a hearing in Boise on Dec. 2, 2013.
“I’m a little disappointed, but it’s to be expected,” Benjamin said in an interview Wednesday.
Benjamin said his next move, with the assistance of co-counsel Deborah Whipple, will be to file a petition, based upon both Idaho Supreme Court rulings regarding Johnson, in federal court in Boise seeking a writ of habeas corpus. If a writ is granted, it would require that Johnson be given a court hearing to determine if her incarceration is lawful.
Benjamin said he and Whipple will be working pro bono on the federal filing, something that both did for more than a year after Bevin’s post-conviction relief ruling in 2011.
Benjamin and Whipple in 2012 submitted filings with Bevin seeking to reopen Johnson's post-conviction relief case, arguing that Johnson had not had competent legal counsel throughout nine years of court proceedings against her, that evidence gathered in the case was not sufficiently tested and that new DNA analytical techniques could possibly identify a killer other than Johnson.
Benjamin and Whipple’s arguments were sufficient enough for Bevin to appoint new Blaine County-funded legal counsel for Johnson. In July 2012, the assignment was given to the Roark Law Firm in Hailey.
Lead counsel Keith Roark said in an interview Wednesday that Bevin delayed any decisions in the renewed post-conviction case until after the Supreme Court issued its opinion. However, even before Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling, Bevin allowed Roark to file new court pleadings regarding Johnson’s case. The pleadings are found in a new court document that Roark filed in January.
“The most recent petition we filed is not a rehash of the petition that was rejected by the Supreme Court,” Roark said. “The evidence is the same—it isn’t like the finding of new evidence.”
Roark explained, as had Benjamin in earlier court filings, that new DNA analytical techniques that were not available when Johnson was tried could provide new information pertaining to Johnson’s innocence or guilt. Roark is seeking an order from Bevin to have new tests conducted.
Benjamin said he hopes to become involved in the renewed post-conviction relief case for Johnson because he “absolutely” believes she is innocent.
“We need to develop the proof to show that, and I think this DNA will provide that proof if we can get it tested,” he said.