SALEM, Ore. (AP) — A man sentenced to death for a 1998 murder is now free, two years after the Oregon Court of Appeals reversed the 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 that “based upon the amount of time that has passed and the unavailability of critical evidence in this case, the state no longer believes that it can prove the defendant’s guilt.”
The court granted the motion, and late Tuesday, Johnson walked out of the county jail where he was held while prosecutors had mulled a retrial for the stabbing death of nurse’s aide Harriet “Sunny” Thompson, 28, in her Salem home. Johnson, who is Black, has repeatedly claimed innocence and refused a plea deal over the years.
Video shot outside the jail Tuesday showed Johnson, smiling and wearing gray sweats with white socks and black slides, walking next to a sheriff’s deputy who was pushing a cart with belongings inside.
“Oh yeah, oh yeah,” Johnson said as supporters hugged him.
While Johnson had been sentenced to death after he was convicted in 2004, former Gov. John Kitzhaber declared a moratorium on executions in 2011. Last year, then Gov. Kate Brown commuted all of the state’s 17 death sentences and ordered the dismantling of the state’s execution chamber
The Oregon Innocence Project, which represented Johnson during the appeal process, said racism played a role in Johnson’s wrongful imprisonment. The group said Johnson’s trial lawyers failed to interview a key witness who saw a white man fleeing the home of Thompson, who was Black.
“There were clear and unambiguous statements of racism by a detective involved in the case who discouraged a neighbor from sharing that she witnessed a white man running away from the scene on the night of the murder,” said Steve Wax, Oregon Innocence Project’s legal director.
That neighbor was Patricia Hubbard, but Johnson’s trial lawyers didn’t seek her out. Hubbard told investigators — who contacted her only after Johnson was convicted — she had seen a white man park his van in Thompson’s driveway around 3:45 a.m. March 20, 1998, and go inside.
Seconds later, Hubbard heard screaming coming from Thompson’s house, a thud and then silence. She said she then saw the white man run from the house.
Soon after the murder, another of Thompson’s neighbors had brought a Salem police detective to Hubbard’s house. When Hubbard began describing what she had seen, she alleges the detective said that a Black woman got murdered and a Black man is “going to pay for it.”
The Oregon Court of Appeals noted Johnson’s defense team failed to interview Hubbard when it reversed 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 wasn’t on any of the tested murder evidence.
“For 25 years, the State of Oregon has fought to defend their 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 sentence of death pronounced against him all those years ago in Marion County and to then waste away for years on death row.”
In their request that the case be dismissed, prosecutors said no other suspect has been identified in Thompson’s murder “despite 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 has been left with absolutely nothing by the State of Oregon.”
“He didn’t even get the paltry amount of gate money that someone would usually get when released because the dismissal of his case means he isn’t entitled to it,” Wax said.