Oregon Innocence Project requests new DNA tests for Salem man on death row
Lauren E Hernandez and Whitney M. Woodworth ,
Statesman Journal -- November 18, 2016
The Oregon Innocence Project is taking on the case of a man sentenced to death after being convicted of murdering a Salem woman in 1998. The group has filed a motion in Marion County requesting the DNA testing and retesting of at least 38 pieces of physical evidence in the case against Jesse Lee Johnson.
Johnson maintained his innocence throughout the investigation. In 2004, he declined the state’s plea offer for first-degree manslaughter and first-degree robbery.
"Our investigation showed there is a wealth of physical evidence that either has not been tested or was tested using outdated technology," said Steven Wax, legal director of the Oregon Innocence Project.
Further testing of the evidence, including blood found at the scene and DNA recovered from the victim, could lead to Johnson's exoneration, Wax added.
The Oregon Innocence Project has received more than 350 requests for reviews. It has reviewed more than 200 and decided to pursue only five. Johnson's murder conviction is the project's first DNA-based case.
A memorandum filed on Johnson's behalf stated the following:
Several pieces of DNA evidence were recovered at Thompson’s home. Some, including a cigarette butt, a bottle of liquor and a dollar bill, matched Johnson’s DNA.
Johnson admitted to knowing Thompson, and the pieces of evidence were consistent with a social visit.
However, several key items recovered from the scene did not match Johnson’s DNA. A semen sample taken from a vaginal swab of the victim, a spot of blood by the bathroom sink, blood on the bathroom floor and hairs found on the victim were not a match to Johnson.
In 2016, at the request of Johnson’s lawyers, one of the vaginal swabs taken from Thompson was submitted to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, also known as CODIS. The search returned with one match — for a man not previously investigated as part of Thompson’s murder.
A public records search revealed the man had a history of violence against women.
A neighbor also added her testimony that she saw a white man fleeing Thompson's home the night of the murder.
The motion requested the retesting — or first-time analysis on pieces weren't initially tested — of the physical evidence with newer DNA technology by an independent crime lab. It also requests the DNA be submitted to CODIS for possible matches.
The Marion County District Attorney's Office declined to comment.
The case was a drawn out affair, taking six years from Thompson's death to Johnson's conviction. News coverage at the time highlighted some of the key issues:
Marion County Circuit Judge Jamese Rhoades ruled that the detectives who seized Johnson’s clothing, Quakenbush and Stoelk, should not have seized the clothing without a warrant.
Tweedt, however, said detectives did have lawful authority to seize the clothes and said the state Department of Justice had the right to appeal Judge Rhoades’ ruling.
It wasn’t until three months after the murder, in June 1998, that Johnson was charged. Johnson was held in Marion County Jail for nearly six years as he awaited trial, due to delays brought on by appeals for suppression of evidence collected by Quakenbush and Stoelk.
During the course of his wait, prosecutors appealed rulings that Johnson’s clothing and shoes were illegally seized, asking for the evidence to be suppressed in court. The appeals delayed the trial until March 2004, since it took an additional full week in February to select a jury - nine women and five men.
Tweedt delivered opening statements for the state by recounting Thompson’s stab wounds in her back, arm and hand. Her jugular vein was slashed.
"It really was a scene from a slaughterhouse, ladies and gentlemen of the jury," Tweedt said.
Stoelk, one of the officers in charge of the crime scene, told jurors that officers collected a bloody sweater, two bloody towels and a broken knife from Thompson’s bathroom. A serrated steak knife was found in the toilet.
Tweedt said the residence was ransacked and stated the motive was robbery. He said Thompson’s stolen jewelry was traded for drugs and some pieces were found at Johnson’s girlfriend’s home.
When Johnson’s lawyer, Lindsay Partridge, delivered opening defense statements, he focused on casting doubt on state witnesses and instead asked jurors to focus on DNA evidence.
The thoroughness of Oregon State Police crime labs was put into question by the defense by telling jurors not all the evidence available at the crime scene was examined.
Criminalist Donna Scarpone said she did not receive all of the DNA testing swabs used on cigarette butts, the floors and knives found in Thompson’s toilet.
In the defense’s closing statements, Johnson’s attorneys told jurors that crime scene investigators failed to investigate evidence that pointed to another suspect.
"There are more questions as we sit here six years later than there are answers in this case," said Noel Grefenson, Johnson’s defense attorney.
Grefenson referred to cigarettes, a belt found outside the house, and a possible handprint on Thompson’s bedroom door that was never tested or recorded into the investigation record. Tennis shoe prints were found in blood at the crime scene, but never investigated as well.
Grefenson said investigators should have examined this overlooked evidence in order to vet suspects with a history of violent crimes that fit the same method of operation.
Jurors took six hours over the course of two days to come to a unanimous verdict on March 18, 2004: Johnson was guilty of aggravated murder in Thompson’s stabbing death.
Johnson maintained his innocence throughout the trial and through the sentencing hearing, where he was sentenced to death for Thompson’s death.
"I'm innocent of this crime. I didn't kill Harriet," Johnson said during his sentencing hearing.
The sentencing was automatically appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court on grounds of lack of a speedy trial, but was upheld by the court.
Thompson’s 17-year old daughter Aneshea spoke to the courtroom during the sentencing hearing.
“You took my mom. She won't see me grow into a woman. She won't be there when I get married. But I forgive you and I will pray for you," she said.
Johnson has been in Oregon State Penitentiary on Death Row following his conviction.
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