Oregon Court of Appeals overturns death sentence in 1998 case, accuses defense attorneys of failing to interview key witness

The Oregon Court of Appeals on Wednesday overturned the death sentence of a man convicted of the fatal stabbing assault of a Salem woman in 1998, ruling that his defense team had failed. not interviewed a key witness who had seen another man enter the victim’s house that morning.

Jesse Johnson, now 60, was convicted by the Marion County Circuit Court of aggravated murder in the death of Lavern “Sunny” Thompson, 28, at his home. He was sentenced to death.

The appeals court found that Johnson’s first defense attorneys had failed to conduct a “reasonable investigation” which would have led to the identification and questioning of Patricia Hubbard, a woman who lived across from Thompson’s house , and that the woman’s testimony could have changed the outcome of the trial.

The court returned the case to Marion County for a new trial. A spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Justice said Wednesday the agency had not decided to appeal to the Oregon Supreme Court.

If the case is retried, Johnson would no longer be eligible for the death penalty due to major changes to Oregon’s aggravated murder law, which has been significantly reduced, said Ryan O’Connor, who represents Johnson in his appeal. Johnson has long maintained his innocence.

“This is an extremely important victory for Mr Johnson,” O’Connor said on Wednesday. “I firmly believe that an innocent man has been in detention since 1998.”

During a court proceeding known as the post-conviction review, Hubbard testified that she had a view of Thompson’s house and was on her front porch in the wee hours of the morning when Thompson was killed .

She testified that she saw a white man drive up to the house and park in Thompson’s driveway. Hubbard testified that she saw the man at Thompson’s house on several occasions and after he entered the house that morning she heard screams coming from the house.

She said she heard a man’s voice and a woman’s voice. She said the man’s voice sounded like the man she saw entering the house. She then heard the sounds of pots and pans crashing, followed by screams that “got higher and louder and more intense on the volume the longer it lasted.” She testified that she heard a thud and then a silence.

The man, she said, left the house “and did not even touch the steps. I just took off the stairs and took off running northwest, flying northwest. She said he had been in the house for about half an hour.

She testified that she saw a black man walking down the driveway about 15 minutes later, but could not tell if he had come from inside the house. Hubbard knew Johnson, who is black, and testified that he did not look like the man she had seen that morning.

Later that day, as police investigated Thompson’s murder, Hubbard told an officer at the scene that she had “information that could help her,” but the officer told her that he didn’t need it, says the ruling.

Another neighbor then brought a Salem Police detective to Hubbard’s home to hear his story, but again the investigator was not interested, according to the court ruling.

“I started telling him what I saw, and he stopped me, and he said, It won’t be necessary, ”Hubbard said in the court ruling.

Hubbard said the detective then used a racist insult to refer to Johnson and the victim.

“One (insult) was murdered, and one (insult) will pay for it,” she recounted, telling the detective.

“Hubbard,” the court ruling pointed out, “described sounds that could be deduced from the murder, after which she saw the white man, whom she recognized as a frequent visitor,” stealing “from the home of the victim. “

Further, the court concluded that “Hubbard’s testimony included evidence of racial bias in the police investigation into the murder and a failure to properly investigate.”

The ruling notes that Johnson’s lawyers spent about six hours surveying the neighborhood and never spoke with Hubbard. She was contacted by attorneys handling Johnson’s appeal.

– Noëlle Crombie; [email protected]; 503-276-7184; @noellecrombie

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