The Oregon State Penitentiary on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

The Oregon Court of Appeals on Wednesday ordered that a Salem man’s 2004 aggravated murder conviction and death sentence be reversed and sent back to the trial court after finding that defense attorneys didn’t investigate evidence pointing to his innocence.

A Marion County jury found Jesse Lee Johnson, 60, guilty of aggravated murder on March 18, 2004, according to court records. He was sentenced to death on March 31, 2004.

Johnson was accused of stabbing Harriet Thompson to death in her home in the early hours of March 20, 1998, when he was 37.

He has maintained his innocence throughout the more than 20 years he has spent in prison, according to a prepared statement from the Oregon Innocence Project, which is representing Johnson in his appeal through attorneys Ryan O’Connor and Jed Peterson.

Johnson petitioned for post-conviction relief on a number of grounds, all of which the post-conviction court rejected. 

Appeals court judge Rex Armstrong wrote in his Oct. 6 opinion that Johnson’s attorneys failed to interview a witness who had reported hearing Thompson arguing with another man shortly before her death, and the post-conviction court “should have determined their deficient performance prejudiced him” and should have allowed him to bring more evidence to the case.

“Today’s opinion is a long overdue step toward righting a terrible injustice,” O’Connor wrote in the statement. “The evidence in this case shows that racism and police misconduct played a significant role in Mr. Johnson’s wrongful conviction in 2004. I am hopeful that now, in 2021, and with the benefit of this Court of Appeals opinion, the prosecutors will do the right thing and drop the charges against Mr. Johnson.”

Steve Wax and Brittney Plesser, attorneys with the Oregon Innocence Project, are also representing Johnson in a related, pending appeal seeking DNA testing they believe could prove his innocence.

The Marion County District Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the appeals court’s order on Wednesday before a full review of the case and appellate decision.

“As with any case that is returned on an appeal, our office will do a full review of the case in order to determine next steps,” said Deputy District Attorney Amy Queen. “An important step is also informing and supporting the victim’s family through the process.”

During the initial police investigation, a witness told police that Johnson had been in Thompson’s home the night she was killed, and another witness described someone who looked similar to Johnson walking away from the home around 6:15 a.m.

Police arrested Johnson on a probation violation a week later, and he said he knew Thompson but denied ever being inside her home. Police found fingerprints in the home that matched Johnson’s and a cigarette butt found in the home matched his DNA.

Other evidence more closely associated with the murder - including the weapon used and blood - did not match Johnson when DNA tested.

An informant told police that Johnson had shown him some of Thompson’s jewelry and told him he had killed Thompson to rob her, according to the opinion. An officer said when he asked Johnson whether the informant was lying, he said he was not. The informant later recanted his statements to a trial counsel investigator but testified at trial against Johnson with the same statements he made to police. Johnson had jewelry that a witness identified as matching Thompson’s.

The post-conviction court determined that Johnson’s attorneys erred in failing to interview one of Thompson’s neighbors, Patricia Hubbard, but not enough to impact the verdict.

Hubbard, who was awake and sitting on her porch around 3:45 a.m. the morning Thompson was killed, saw a white man drive up and park his van in Thompson’s driveway and recognized him as someone she had seen at Thompson’s house “[m]any, many times,” the opinion said.

Seconds after the man went inside, Hubbard heard shouting and screaming from a male and female voice coming from inside. She recognized the male voice as the man she had seen numerous times before at the house.

“She heard sounds like pots and pans crashing and loud voices and screaming,” the opinion said. “The screaming ‘got higher pitched and louder and more intense on the volume the longer it went on.’ She heard screaming, then a thud, and then total silence.”

After the screaming stopped, the man left out of the back door without touching the steps and took off running, the opinion said. Around 10 to 15 minutes later, Hubbard said she saw a Black man walking down the driveway, but she said he did not look like a photo of Johnson - who is also Black - that the post-conviction team showed her.

Hubbard testified that police turned her down both times that she tried to provide information. She said she approached a police officer near the home told him she had information about the incident, but he responded that he didn’t need her help and told her to go back home.

She testified that on another occasion, another neighbor brought a Salem police detective to Hubbard’s house. She said she started telling him what she saw, but he stopped her and described both Johnson and Thompson using racist slurs.

Trial counsel’s investigators never interviewed Hubbard despite spending around six hours canvassing the neighborhood and talking to witnesses.

Armstrong said in the opinion that Johnson’s attorneys’ deficient performance resulted in prejudice and that had they interviewed Hubbard, her testimony at trial could have affected the outcome. 

“Adequate trial counsel would have recognized the importance in a capital murder case of contacting the people nearby who were likely to have information about the victim, people associated with the residence, and the events of the night in question, when a violent murder occurred in a nearby home in the early morning hours when many residents would likely have been at home,” Armstrong wrote in the opinion.

"The post-conviction court erred in concluding that the failure to reasonably investigate did not prejudice [Johnson’s] case,” he wrote. “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.”

 Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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