By ANDREW SELSKY, Associated Press
SALEM, Ore. (AP) – The Oregon Court of Appeals on Wednesday overturned the murder conviction and death sentence of a black man, saying his defense team failed to interview a key witness who had saw a white man flee the victim’s home.
Jesse Johnson has been accused of stabbing Harriet Thompson, a 28-year-old black nurse’s aide, to death in his Salem home in 1998. He has repeatedly claimed his innocence and refused a plea deal.
Ryan O’Connor, Johnson’s attorney during the appeal phase, said racism and police misconduct contributed to his wrongful conviction. The attorney informed Johnson of the appeals court decision during a phone call to the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem.
“He’s happy. It feels like it’s long overdue. He’s been in jail for a long time for something he didn’t do. He said that was what he expected,” O’Connor said.
But the decision doesn’t mean Johnson will be released immediately, if at all. O’Connor said Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum could appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court. Her spokeswoman Kristina Edmunson said they were reviewing the decision.
Johnson’s appeal centered on a claim his attorneys failed to represent him because the jury had never heard that the victim’s neighbor, Patricia Hubbard, saw a white man park his van in Thompson Alley at around 3:45 a.m. on March 20, 1998, and go inside. Seconds later, Hubbard heard screams coming from Thompson’s house, a thud, then silence.
She told investigators, who found her and contacted her after Johnson’s conviction, that she saw the white man running away from the house and minutes later a black man was walking down the driveway. She did not identify him as Johnson.
The jury did not know all of this because lawyers in Johnson’s trial were unable to find Hubbard and speak to him. The police did not question her either, although on the day of the murder she had approached a policeman and told him that she had information, only to be told he did not need. for his help and that he had to go home.
Shortly after the murder, another neighbor of Thompson brought a Salem Police Detective to Hubbard’s home. When Hubbard began to describe what she had seen, the detective allegedly said, twice using a racial epithet, that a black woman had been murdered and that a black man “was going to pay for it.”
O’Connor said that “Racism and police misconduct played a significant role in Mr Johnson’s wrongful conviction … Jesse Lee Johnson is an innocent man who has spent over 20 years in prison and sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit “.
The appeals court said a post-conviction court erred in concluding that the failure of Johnson’s lawyers to investigate properly did not prejudice Johnson’s case.
“A reasonable investigation would likely have led to finding and interviewing Hubbard, which in turn would have led to evidence and testimony which might have tended to affect the outcome of the trial,” the appeals court said.
Former Governor John Kitzhaber declared a moratorium on executions in 2011, and current Governor Kate Brown extended it, so that prisoners on death row are no longer on death row at the State of Oregon. Johnson was removed from the general prison population to answer O’Connor’s call Thursday in the prison law library.
“Due to COVID they don’t do in-person visits and legal appeals are really reserved so we had to hurry to get an appeal,” O’Connor said. “He was not expecting this call today. We have been waiting for this notice for over two years. It was a pleasant surprise.”
O’Connor himself had only learned of Reynold’s decision from the appeals court by constantly checking the court’s website, where the decisions are posted every Wednesday.
“So I was in my kitchen, getting my kids ready for school and updating the appeals court website on my phone,” O’Connor said. “I was so happy. It’s mostly a feeling of relief because it’s the right decision under the law and it’s the right decision, and I firmly believe in Mr Johnson’s innocence.
Another attempt is also underway to prove Johnson’s innocence.
Johnson’s DNA was not on any of the murder evidence tested. The Oregon Innocence Project has asked a court to allow additional DNA testing on crime scene evidence in the case. This appeal is still pending.
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