The Oregon Court of Appeals has reversed the murder conviction and ordered a retrial for Jesse Lee Johnson, a Black man who has been fighting to prove his innocence for 20 years.
Johnson was accused of fatally stabbing Harriet Thompson, a 28-year-old Black nurse’s aide and mother of five, in her Salem, Ore., apartment in 1998. However, both the police and prosecution failed to interview a witness who saw a white man with long hair running from the crime scene that morning.
Johnson was sentenced to death in 2004. There has been a moratorium on executions in Oregon since 2011.
According to the Associated Press, the appeal said Johnson’s defense lawyers were deficient in representing him because the jury did not hear from Patricia Hubbard, the victim’s neighbor. Hubbard said that on March 20, 1998 at around 3:45 a.m. she saw a white man park his van in Thompson’s driveway and go inside before she heard screaming, a thud, then silence.
Here’s more from AP:
She told investigators, who found and contacted her after Johnson was convicted, that she saw the white man run from the house and a few minutes later, a Black man walk down the driveway. She did not identify him as Johnson.
The jury didn’t know all this because Johnson’s trial lawyers failed to find Hubbard and speak to her. Police didn’t interview her either, even though on the day of the killing she had approached a police officer and said she had information, only to be told he didn’t need her help and to go home.
Soon after the murder, another neighbor of Thompson’s brought a Salem police detective to Hubbard’s house. When Hubbard began describing what she had seen, the detective allegedly said, twice using a racial epithet, that a Black woman got murdered and a Black man is “going to pay for it.”
“A reasonable investigation would likely have led to finding and interviewing Hubbard, which in turn would have led to evidence and testimony that could have tended to affect the outcome of the trial,” the appeals court said in their ruling on Wednesday, according to AP.
Johnson’s lawyer for the appeal, Ryan O’Connor, was in his kitchen getting his children ready for school when he read the ruling on the court’s website. He immediately called Johnson, who is at the Oregon State Penitentiary on Thursday.
“Because of COVID, they’re not doing in-person visits and the legal calls are really booked, so we had to scramble to get a call in,” O’Connor said, AP reports. “He wasn’t expecting this call today. We’ve been waiting over two years for this opinion to come out. It was a pleasant surprise.”
According to KGW, O’Connor said both Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and the Marion County District Attorney’s Office could order a new trial or dismiss the charges. A spokesperson for Rosenblum’s office told KGW the AG has not decided whether or not the office will seek further review yet.
“I’m excited for Jesse. As long as fairness comes to the gentleman that it needs to go to, that’s what’s important to me,” Hubbard said in an interview with KGW.
There is still one more appeal in the fight to ultimately free Johnson. The Oregon Innocence Project, which is responsible for getting Hubbard’s account for the appeal, also asked a court to allow additional DNA testing for the crime scene evidence to prove his innocence. According to that appeal, his DNA was never tested on any of the evidence.