Jesse Johnson walked out of the Marion County Jail on Tuesday as a free man, after 25 years behind bars in Oregon.
In 1998, 28-year-old Harriet Thompson was murdered in a Salem apartment. Johnson was arrested that year, and then convicted in 2004 for a crime that he denied committing. A jury then sentenced him to death, and Johnson lived on death row at the Oregon State Penitentiary until 2021, when his case was overturned by the Oregon Court of Appeals. Prosecutors quietly dismissed the case against him on Tuesday, acknowledging evidence in the case was too thin to retry the 62-year-old.
“Based 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,” deputy district attorneys Katie Suver and Matt Kemmy wrote in a motion to dismiss the case. A judge approved the motion Tuesday afternoon.
Throughout his decadeslong legal saga, Johnson has insisted upon his innocence and turned down multiple plea deals that would have allowed him to serve less time than the 25 years he spent in custody if he admitted to Thompson’s murder.
Johnson walked out of the jail around 6:30 p.m. Tuesday wearing a gray sweatshirt and sweatpants, carrying all of his life’s possessions in three small cardboard boxes. On top of one of those boxes was a hand-drawn chess board — a hobby Johnson picked up during his long incarceration.
“I’m happy and excited and ready for the next phase now. Been a lot of years for something I didn’t do,” Johnson said.
In its 2021 decision overturning Johnson’s conviction, the Oregon Court of Appeals said that his original defense counsel delivered inadequate legal representation and failed to interview at least one key witness. That witness, a former neighbor of Thompson’s, said police officers dismissed her attempts to give them information and told her “a n***** got murdered, and a n***** is going to pay for it.” Both Thompson and Johnson are Black.
Lynne Morgan, one of Johnson’s attorneys now, said his release was long overdue.
“You can’t overstate the institutional racism that led to this result,” Morgan said Tuesday. “It’s breathtaking, really.”
Rich Wolf, another of Johnson’s current attorneys, said Marion County prosecutors working the case contacted him Tuesday and offered to dismiss Johnson’s first-degree murder charge without prejudice, meaning they could prosecute him again in the future if new evidence surfaces.
No blood or other DNA material that appeared directly connected with Thompon’s killing has ever been linked to Johnson. During the 2004 trial, prosecutors largely relied on circumstantial evidence to gain a conviction. Among them were a $5 bill in Thompson’s wallet and a beer bottle underneath her sink that had Johnson’s fingerprints, which his attorneys noted only proved that they knew each other. Johnson has admitted to knowing Thompson.
Thompson’s former neighbor proved to be a key witness to overturning Johnson’s conviction. She told defense investigators, who were reexamining Johnson’s conviction in 2013, that she saw a white man fleeing Thompson’s apartment on the night of the murder, shortly after a loud argument. Johnson’s defense team in 2004 never spoke to the neighbor, and only spent six hours canvassing the neighborhood, according to post-conviction court filings.
Prosecutors have known about the neighbor’s testimony and additional DNA evidence pointing away from Johnson as Thompson’s killer since before the 2021 Oregon Court of Appeals decision.
The Oregon Innocence Project began working on DNA testing related to the case in 2014, seeking to prove Johnson’s innocence through various pieces of evidence left at the crime scene. In a statement Wednesday, legal director Steve Wax said the Marion County District Attorney’s Office fought those efforts because it was more interested in “protecting its own reputation than with uncovering the truth.”
“Jesse Johnson walked out of jail last night a free man but has been left with absolutely nothing by the State of Oregon,” Wax wrote, noting that Johnson did not even receive the small amount of “gate money” that is typically given to people leaving incarceration because the case had been dismissed. “No resources, no support. We need the community to rally round Mr. Johnson now.”
In their motion for dismissal Tuesday, Marion County prosecutors did not mention the neighbor’s account or any physical evidence as a reason to drop the case. Instead, they noted that several people connected to the investigation had since died or become physically unable to testify. That list included Johnson’s former girlfriend, who has vouched for his innocence, and Thompson’s former landlord, who died before Johnson’s original trial.
With Johnson now free, it is unclear if prosecutors have other suspects in Thompson’s killing. Reached for comment on Wednesday, the Marion County District Attorney’s Office declined to provide further detail.
This is a developing story and may be updated.