Jesse Johnson walked out of the Marion County Jail on Tuesday as a free man, after 25 years behind bars in Oregon. In 2004, Johnson was convicted of murdering 28-year-old Harriet Thompson in a Salem apartment — 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. OPB editor Ryan Hass tells us the details.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Jesse Lee Johnson walked out of the Marion County Jail on Tuesday as a free man after 25 years behind bars in Oregon. Johnson was convicted of murder in 2004 and sentenced to death. He always maintained his innocence. Johnson’s conviction was overturned by the Oregon Court of Appeals in 2021, but he remained behind bars until this week when prosecutors dropped their murder charges against him. OPB news editor Ryan Haas was in Salem on Tuesday when Johnson was released and he joins us now. Ryan, welcome back.
Ryan Haas: Hi, Dave.
Miller: Hey, so what do we actually know about 28-year-old Harriet Thompson’s murder in a Salem apartment in 1998?
Haas: Well, what we know is that this was a very brutal crime that took place in the early morning hours of March 20th, 1998. Thompson was found dead on the floor in her apartment with her wallet scattered across her body. Tables were tipped over and it was just really clear that a struggle had taken place. And there was just blood everywhere in this apartment. Police found two knives at the scene, and blood all through the kitchen and living room and bathroom. Thompson was stabbed many times. Police suspected the killer or killers had cleaned up in the bathroom before fleeing the scene. As far as motive for the crime, that’s not fully clear. Police described it as a robbery that had gone wrong when they charged Johnson, saying he stole costume jewelry from her apartment.
Miller: What evidence did police use to tie Jesse Johnson to this crime?
Haas: They pointed to quite a few things. Detectives and forensic experts essentially found a $5 bill in Thompson’s wallet that had Johnson’s palm print on it. They also found a cigarette butt in the kitchen that had his DNA, and a beer bottle under the sink with one of his fingerprints on it. Police said this evidence proved Johnson had been inside the apartment. Now, it should be stated that Johnson admits he had been in the apartment. He said he had gone over there once to try and buy drugs from Thompson’s drug dealer. Thompson and Johnson were part of this world of drug users in late nineties, Salem.
You know, neighbors said a lot of people would come and go from Thompson’s apartment at the time.
Prosecutors also heavily relied on testimony from a person who had outstanding warrants, and from a jailhouse informant who claimed that Johnson essentially admitted to this crime, although it came out at trial that the informant received a reduced sentence for saying that. Still, a lot of other evidence at the scene actually points away from Johnson as the potential killer. There were bloody footprints at the scene, but when police took his clothing and boots to check for Thompson’s blood, there was none. There was also DNA found at the scene that did not belong to either Johnson or Thompson.
Miller: What was Jesse Johnson’s life like at that point?
Haas: He admits it wasn’t glamorous. He was essentially homeless and was stealing trinkets and jewelry from people’s cars or department stores that he could then trade for drugs or cash. He would regularly stay at an older woman’s house that he knew, and he was kind of dating her, but he didn’t really have a place of his own. Now, the ironic part here is that Jesse Johnson says he stayed in Oregon because he wanted to kind of get away from some of the criminal activity he had been around in Arkansas and California, where he lived before. Here’s how he put it to my colleague, Leah Sottile:
[Recording of Johnson] “Well, I wasn’t planning on staying in Salem, it was just a different vibe for me. I couldn’t do all those things that I was used to doing in Salem. I slowed down a lot, more peaceful for me.”
Haas: He’s basically saying he came to Salem just a few months before this murder happened, and he kind of liked that it wasn’t so busy and there wasn’t so much criminal activity going around, and he kind of just wanted to hang out there. He also said he only met Thompson two or three times before this happened and he only knew her by her nickname, Sunny, so it was kind of a shock to him when he was arrested for her killing.
Miller: Despite the limited evidence connecting him to this crime, as opposed to being in her apartment, he was eventually convicted. What did you hear from him about what his time in prison was like?
Haas: For someone who spent 25 years locked up for a crime he says he didn’t commit, he’s surprisingly zen about his time behind bars. He says he just did his time quietly and always believed one day that he’d get out. He even turned down plea deals over the years that might have let him out earlier if he just admitted to killing Thompson, but he says he wasn’t going to admit to something he didn’t do. Johnson says he passed the time in prison by learning to play chess. A lot of inmates play chess, and so he would hang out and watch people and learn. He says he also played Dominos a lot with other incarcerated people and he just kind of kept the hope alive that one day he’d walk free.
Miller: Now, he wasn’t just in prison, he was on death row. How close did he come before the moratorium on executions in Oregon, to being put to death?
Haas: In this particular matter, the length of time that his case took to appeal was actually maybe to Johnson’s benefit. By the time Johnson was convicted - and I should say he was arrested in 1998 and he sat in jail for six years before he even had a trial - but by the time he was convicted and his appeals were working their way through the system, former Governor John Kitzhaber was in office. Kitzhaber had kind of soured on the death penalty pretty early in his tenure, that was after he allowed two executions in the late 1990′s to go through. And that was during his first term in office. And as you mentioned, by 2011, Kitzhaber then put a moratorium on the practice of exercising the death penalty.
Still, death was always a possibility for Jesse Johnson as he remained isolated on death row with what he called, “actual killers.” It was always possible. Maybe a governor comes in and decides we’re going to resume executing people. It wouldn’t be until Johnson’s conviction was overturned in 2021 by the Oregon Court of Appeals that that sort of Damocles was removed from the equation.
Miller: Why was his conviction overturned in 2021?
Haas: Well, the short answer is that the appeals judges found his original attorneys did such a bad job at the trial that it couldn’t be considered an adequate defense. Now, the longer answer is that there was new evidence that surfaced, that highlights some of the problems with this case that I’ve kind of mentioned here. Namely, defense investigators canvassed the neighborhood and they found a neighbor named Patricia Hubbard who lived just across the street from Harriet Thompson. And she said she actually saw a white man frantically running from Thompson’s apartment right around the time of the killing, when it happened. Hubbard also said that when she tried to tell police about this in 1998 they essentially brushed her off and one detective, according to her, even used racial slurs when talking about both Johnson and Thompson, who are Black.
Johnson’s defense team has also vigorously pushed to get more DNA testing done on the evidence that is clearly linked to the crime, such as the blood. They think that will show Johnson was clearly not involved.
Miller: How is it that after his conviction was overturned, he remained locked up for the last two years?
Haas: So, when the court of appeals overturned Johnson’s sentence, you’d think that’d be it, right? He’d be out. But in this case, the Marion County District Attorney’s Office said that they plan to actually take Johnson back to court because the charges weren’t vacated. They thought Johnson was still guilty, essentially. So he was sent back to Marion County jail. He was removed from the prison system, moved back to county jail, where conditions are often less stable, and he’s been awaiting trial there ever since. His new lawyers had been preparing pretty heavily for that, and they were actually supposed to have a pretrial hearing today.
Miller: So what happened then this week, that allowed Johnson to finally be free?
Haas: Well, according to a memo from the Marion County Deputy District Attorneys who were working this case, they filed that this week, they said that they realized the evidence they had against Johnson was pretty thin, and that some of their notable witnesses such as the accuser with the outstanding warrants who testified against Jesse Johnson in 2004, that person had died. Many other people have died or become incapacitated in some form since then. But defense attorneys say maybe that’s an excuse. They told OPB that in this case, this has always been trumped up against Jesse Johnson from the start, and that they had planned to bring a pretty strong case that police detectives targeted Johnson because he’s Black. They were confident that if this had gone to trial, it would have ended up airing a lot of dirty laundry at the Salem Police Department.
Miller: What was the scene on Tuesday evening when he walked out?
Haas: Johnson and his lawyers were obviously elated at this outcome. He walked out a door at the Marion County Jail wearing his county-issued sweatpants and shirt, and I was there rolling tape when it happened.
[Audio of supporters as Johnson steps out of jail]: ‘They’re just waiting for him. There he is. Look at this guy, who is this guy here, sneaking out the side door? Congratulations, Jessie... All right, free, how does it feel, brother? Oh, yeah. Congratulations, Jesse. Yay, so great, so great.’
Haas: So, Jesse Johnson was just kind of quietly taking it in, and you could see his defense team was tearing up a little bit as they hugged. This has just been a really long legal battle and they were hoping for this day.
Miller: Now that prosecutors have dropped charges against Johnson, it seems that this is unofficially unsolved murder. Is there good evidence that prosecutors could use to charge somebody else, or somebody’s else, for what’s now a very old case?
Haas: That’s a really good question, and it’s one that I put to the Marion County District Attorney’s office this week. Unfortunately, they declined to comment any further on this case for now. They pointed me to their Motion for Dismissal as their official comment for right now. So I think the essential question you’re asking is, do they have other suspects? And I don’t know. What I can say for sure is that over the 25 years Jesse Johnson has been behind bars in Oregon, police and prosecutors have spent almost all their time focused only on him as far as anyone can tell from the court records.
Miller: Has Johnson said - or his lawyers - if they’ll consider seeking any compensation for his spending more than 25 years behind bars?
Haas: I asked Jesse Johnson if any amount of money would ever make this right, and unsurprisingly he said no. He entered jail at 38 years old and he’s now 62. That being said, his attorneys are definitely considering a civil lawsuit against a number of potential defendants, such as the State of Oregon and the Salem Police Department. They believe Johnson was racially profiled and wrongly convicted, and that the people who carried out those actions need to pay financially for that wrongdoing.
It’s worth saying that Jesse Johnson came out of jail with essentially nothing. The jail didn’t even give him the small amount of money that they typically give to released inmates, because his charges were dismissed. So in the meantime, Johnson’s lawyers have set up a GoFundMe to try and get him a little bit of money so they can find him a place to live. Last I checked, they had raised about $15,000 already of their $20,000 goal.
Miller: Ryan, thanks very much.
Haas: Thank you.
Miller: Ryan Haas is an editor for OPB News. He joined us to talk about Jesse Johnson’s freedom. Johnson spent more than 25 years behind bars after being convicted of murder in 2004. That conviction was overturned in 2021, and on Tuesday he was released after prosecutors dropped their murder charges against him.
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