SALEM, OR — A man sentenced to death for a 1998 murder is now free, two years after the Oregon Court of Appeals overturned his conviction.
The Oregon Innocence Project on Wednesday accused the state of committing a “heinous injustice” in its handling of the case. The Marion County District Attorney’s Office on Tuesday asked the Marion County Circuit Court to dismiss the case against Jesse Johnson, saying “given the passage of time and the unavailability of critical evidence in this case, the state no longer believes it can prove the defendant’s guilt.
The court granted the motion and on Tuesday evening Johnson walked out of the county jail where he was being held as prosecutors considered a new trial in the stabbing death of nurse aide Harriet ‘Sunny’ Thompson, 28. , in his home in Salem. Johnson, who is black, has repeatedly maintained his innocence and refused a plea deal over the years.
Video shot outside the jail on Tuesday showed Johnson, smiling and wearing gray hoodies with white socks and black slides, walking alongside a sheriff’s deputy who was pushing a cart with belongings inside.
“Oh yeah, oh yeah,” Johnson said as fans hugged him.
While Johnson was sentenced to death after being found guilty in 2004, former Governor John Kitzhaber declared a moratorium on executions in 2011. Last year, then-Governor Kate Brown commuted the executions. 17 state death sentences and ordered the dismantling of the state. execution chamber
The Oregon Innocence Project, which represented Johnson during the appeals process, said racism played a role in Johnson’s wrongful imprisonment. The group said Johnson’s lawyers failed to interview a key witness who saw a white man flee the home of Thompson, who was black.
“There were clear and unambiguous statements of racism from a detective involved in the case who discouraged a neighbor from saying she saw a white man running from the scene the night of the murder “said Steve Wax, legal director of the Oregon Innocence Project. .
That neighbor was Patricia Hubbard, but Johnson’s attorneys did not search for her. Hubbard told investigators – who contacted her only after Johnson was convicted – that she saw a white man park his van in Thompson’s driveway around 3:45 a.m. on March 20, 1998, and drive in.
Seconds later, Hubbard heard screams coming from Thompson’s house, a thump and then silence. She said she then saw the white man running out of the house.
Shortly after the murder, another neighbor of Thompson’s had brought a Salem police detective to Hubbard’s home. When Hubbard began describing what she saw, she claimed the detective said a black woman had been murdered and a black man was “going to pay for it.”
The Oregon Court of Appeals noted that Johnson’s defense team failed to interview Hubbard when they overturned his murder conviction in October 2021.
The state resisted requests for additional DNA testing that could have revealed other suspects, Wax said. Johnson’s DNA did not appear on any of the murder evidence tested.
“For 25 years, the State of Oregon has fought to defend its deeply flawed case against our former client, Jesse Johnson,” Wax said in a statement. “There can be no more heinous injustice imaginable than for Mr. Johnson to have heard a death sentence pronounced against him all those years ago in Marion County, and then languish for years in the hall of the dead.
In their request to dismiss the case, prosecutors said no other suspects have been identified in Thompson’s murder “despite the ongoing investigation.”
District Attorney Paige Clarkson and Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Wax said Johnson is now a free man “but the state of Oregon has left him absolutely nothing.”
“He hasn’t even received the paltry amount of entry money that someone would usually receive on release, because the rejection of his case means he’s not entitled to it,” Wax said.