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An Oregon man who was convicted of a 1998 murder, but professed his innocence, walked free this week after a quarter-century behind bars.
Jesse Johnson, 62, was convicted of murdering Harriet “Sunny” Thompson, 28, at her home in Salem, Oregon, 25 years ago and was sentenced to death for the crime in 2004.
The Oregon Innocence Project, who represented Johnson in his appeal, accused of state of “heinous injustice” in its handling of the case.
“There were clear and unambiguous statements of racism by a detective involved in the case who discouraged a neighbor from sharing that she witnessed a White man running away from the scene on the night of the murder,” Steve Wax, Oregon Innocence Project’s legal director, said in a statement.
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Jesse Johnson, right, was freed this week two years after his conviction was overturned. (James Comstock via AP)
Thompson’s neighbor, Patricia Hubbard, had told a detective that she heard her screams in the early morning hours of March 20, 1998, and looked out her window to see a White man running down Thompson’s driveway. But Johnson, who is Black, was convicted of the fatal stabbing.
None of Johnson’s DNA was found at the scene.
Thompson had been stabbed multiple times and her throat was slashed, according to USA Today.
After Johnson’s conviction, Hubbard told investigators that a detective dismissed what she said she had witnessed, telling her twice, a Black woman got murdered and a Black man,”is going to pay for it.”
Jesse Johnson spent over two decades on death row at Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. (Google Maps)
The Innocence Project said Johnson’s defense never sought her testimony.
“For 25 years, the State of Oregon has fought to defend their deeply flawed case against our former client, Jesse Johnson,” Wax said, accusing the Marion County district attorney and Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum of refusing requests to test additional DNA evidence. “There can be no more heinous injustice imaginable than for Mr. Johnson to have heard a sentence of death pronounced against him all those years ago in Marion County and to then waste away for years on death row.”
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Investigators said Thompson’s murder was a robbery and Johnson’s girlfriend was found with some of her jewelry after the crime, USA Today reported. Johnson told detectives he knew Thompson but denied killing her.
Marion County Courthouse, Salem, Ore. (Google Maps)
Rosenblum told the Associated Press in a statement: “The Marion County District Attorney’s office made the decision not to retry this case due to the passage of time and loss of witnesses. We respect their decision.”
On Tuesday, the district attorney’s office asked the case against Johnson to be vacated by the Marion County Circuit Court.
“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,” the district attorney’s office said.
“I’m happy and excited and ready for the next phase now,” Johnson, who had turned down multiple opportunities for a plea deal, said, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting. “Been a lot of years for something I didn’t do.”
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Prosecutors say there are no other suspects in Thompson’s murder.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.