Jesse Johnson, 62, was released last week after prosecutors asked the circuit court in Marion County, Oregon, to dismiss the case against him—25 years after the murder for which he was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death.
Mr. Johnson, a Black man, has always maintained that he was not involved in the 1998 stabbing death of Harriet Thompson, a Black woman.
Despite a lack of DNA evidence connecting him to the crime, Mr. Johnson was convicted and sentenced to death in 2004.
In 2021, the Oregon Court of Appeals unanimously overturned Mr. Johnson’s conviction because his trial lawyer failed to interview a key witness who saw a white man flee the victim’s home on the night of the murder.
The witness, Patricia Hubbard, lived across the street from the victim and was sitting on her porch at about 3:45 am when she saw a white man drive up and park in the victim’s driveway. She testified in a 2013 deposition that she recognized the man because she had seen him at the victim’s home many times before.
Within seconds after the white man went inside, Ms. Hubbard heard shouting and screaming from the house. She recognized the white man’s voice and heard what sounded like pots and pans crashing. The screaming got louder and more intense, and then she heard a thud, followed by total silence.
Right after the screaming stopped, the white man came out of the back door and “flew off the steps” running.
Later, Ms. Hubbard saw a Black man walking—not running—down the driveway and rubbing his forehead as if in “disbelief.” When she was shown a photo of Mr. Johnson 12 years later, she said he did not look like the person she saw that night.
Ms. Hubbard then left for work but later returned home to find police in her neighborhood. She approached a uniformed police officer and told him she had some information; he told her to go back home.
Later, another neighbor brought a Salem police detective to Ms. Hubbard’s house. Ms. Hubbard said, “I started telling him what I saw, and he stopped me, and he said, ‘that won’t be necessary.'” He told her, “A n***** got murdered, and a n***** is going to pay for it.”
Mr. Johnson’s trial lawyers spent only six hours canvassing the neighborhood and never spoke to Ms. Hubbard. This was deficient performance, the Court of Appeals found, and it prejudiced Mr. Johnson because Ms. Hubbard’s testimony could have changed the outcome of his trial.
The court also found that Ms. Hubbard’s testimony “included evidence of racial bias in the police investigation of the murder, and a failure to properly investigate.”
Although prosecutors have known about Ms. Hubbard’s testimony and other exonerating evidence since before the appellate court’s decision in 2021, they waited another two years before filing a motion to dismiss the case, writing that “[b]ased on 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 to twelve jurors beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The motion was granted last Tuesday and Mr. Johnson was released that afternoon.
In 2011, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber announced a moratorium on executions in the state, saying “I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer; and I will not allow further executions while I am governor.”
Gov. Kate Brown continued the moratorium when she took office in 2015, and last year she commuted the death sentences of all 17 people on Oregon’s death row to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, calling the death penalty “both dysfunctional and immoral.”
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 194 people have been exonerated from death row in the U.S. since 1973. More than half (54%) of death row exonerees are Black.