Oregon man originally sentenced to death getting second chance at freedom

Jesse Johnson, who spent close to half of his life behind bars and on death row, is getting a second chance at freedom.
Published: Sep. 6, 2023 at 10:31 PM PDT
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PORTLAND Ore. (KPTV) - Jesse Johnson, who spent close to half of his life behind bars and on death row, is getting a second chance at freedom.

He was released Tuesday night following an investigation that showed his lawyers during his initial trial did not provide effective counsel.

“He was smiling,” Richard Wolf, one of Johnson’s attorneys explained, “our whole team assembled. We met him there at the jail. So, he was happy to see everyone. Obviously, happy to be out. If you could imagine if you’d been locked away for two and a half decades and plunked down in the free world again, there’s a lot that has changed.”

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Wolf is one of three attorneys representing the newly free 62-year-old Johnson. His run in with the legal system began 25 years ago.

In 1998, Johnson was charged with the murder of Harriet Thompson, who was found stabbed to death in her Salem apartment.

Johnson waited six years behind bars to go to trial. At some point during that time, Wolf said he was offered a plea bargain for what he believes would have been a 15-year sentence. Johnson maintained his innocence.

“He turned it down,” Wolf said. “He was convicted and sentenced to death.”

The Oregon Supreme Court confirmed that death sentence, and Johnson immediately moved for post-trial relief proceedings.

More than 15 years would go by before the appeals court determined Johnson’s lawyers were inadequate during his trial. Wolf explained they missed crucial evidence, like statements from a neighbor near the victim’s house, who said she saw a different man go into her home and heard screaming shortly after.

Wolf said she was never asked to testify, “and she would have been easily found. The post-conviction investigators found her, and she was shocked that nobody had called her to testify in the trial.”

The Oregon Innocence Project said in a statement they also found evidence that the lead detective encouraged that same woman to not say anything about what she saw.

Wolf also said the appeals court found that blood at the scene of the crime, which did not belong to the victim or Johnson, had not been put through a testing database for other potential suspects.

“These deficiencies that occurred had to have a tendency to effect the outcome of the case. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have granted him relief,” Wolf said.

Johnson was set for a new trial in late 2021, which would eventually be set for early 2024.

Wolf says years ago Johnson was offered to plead no contest and gain his freedom, but he refused that offer.

“He was waiting in jail with the jail key effectively in his pocket for this trial in February,” he explained, “so that he could clear his name. I don’t know any guilty person that would do that.”

The prosecution filed for a dismissal. Court documents show that they did so because they said key evidence is no longer around and witnesses have either passed away or are no longer available. Things leading them to believe they wouldn’t be able to prove Johnson’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury.

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Wolf said that’s great news for Johnson, who is now a free man following a judge’s decision.

Wolf said Johnson has built up an appetite following the two and a half decades spent behind bars. They plan to go out to eat and satisfy a craving Johnson has been having for some time now.

“Lobster,” Wolf smiled.

The state’s dismissal was without prejudice, which means they could potentially retry Johnson if any new evidence arises.