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Jesse Johnson

Other Oregon Exonerations
On March 21, 1998, Harriet Thompson’s body was found by her landlord in her apartment in Salem, Oregon.

Thompson, who was 28 years old, had been stabbed and her throat slashed, and she had defensive wounds on her hands, suggesting a violent confrontation. There was blood on the linoleum floor, and police found a partial impression that appeared to be from a work boot as well as prints from a sneaker or tennis shoe.

Officers with the Salem Police Department interviewed Thompson’s neighbors. A person who lived above Thompson said they heard screaming at about 4:30 a.m. on March 20.

During the investigation, an acquaintance of Thompson’s told police that 37-year-old Jesse Johnson had been in the apartment on March 19. Another witness told police that he had seen a man roughly matching Johnson’s description walking away from Thompson’s apartment on the morning of March 20. According to this witness, the man was wearing a denim jacket and maybe acid-washed jeans.

A police technician dusted the crime scene for fingerprints, and Johnson’s fingerprints were found on a vase and a $5 bill.

On March 27, 1998, the police arrested Johnson at his girlfriend’s home on an unrelated probation violation. He was only partially dressed, and the police allowed him to put on his clothes—a pair of acid-washed jeans and work boots.

During an interview with the police, Johnson said he knew Thompson but had never been in her apartment. He maintained this was the case, even after the police told him about the fingerprints. Johnson was not charged with a crime related to Thompson’s death, but he was placed in the Yamhill County Jail on the probation violation charge. His boots and clothing were seized and placed in an evidence locker.

One of the officers interviewed Johnson on April 17, 1998. The interview was not recorded. By then, several witnesses had told the police that they had seen Johnson with some of Thompson’s jewelry in the days after her death. According to police, a man named Donald Blocker said that Johnson told him, “I offed the bitch to rob her.” The officer asked Johnson if Blocker was lying. According to the officer, Johnson replied, “No, he’s not.”

On June 18, 1998, Johnson was released from the Yamhill County Jail and quickly charged with murder in Thompson’s death.

His trial was delayed for nearly six years, as Johnson’s attorneys, Noel Grefenson and Lindsay Partridge, moved to suppress the use of the boots and clothing seized at the jail, because the items were taken without a warrant. The state argued that “exigent circumstances” allowed the seizure. A judge in Marion County Circuit Court rejected that argument and said the seizure was unlawful. In the ruling, the judge said that Detectives Mike Quakenbush and Craig Stoelk had testified falsely at the hearing about the need to act without a warrant. “It does raise serious questions with regard to their credibility,” the judge said.

Johnson’s clothing remained in police custody, and the state responded with two separate courses of action. First, it appealed the trial court’s order. Second, it applied for a search warrant for the items, which was granted on September 1, 1999.

After the search warrant was granted, the state abandoned its appeal of the earlier order, and Johnson’s attorneys again moved to suppress. A trial court judge ruled in Johnson’s favor, again noting the shifting testimony of the officers. Quakenbush had said in the search-warrant application that Johnson was not in handcuffs, but at a hearing testified that he was. “These flaws are at best, inaccuracies, and at worst, lies,” the court said.

The case wound its way through the appellate courts for several years. On July 24, 2003, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled in Johnson’s favor, suppressing the state from introducing this evidence at trial. “The police used information derived from that earlier unlawful seizure, viz., the fact that the clothes could be found in a police evidence locker, when they later applied for a search warrant,” the court wrote. “The existence of that factual connection is sufficient to shift the burden of persuasion regarding taint to the state.”

Prior to trial, Johnson rejected an offer from prosecutors to plead guilty to manslaughter and robbery and receive a 15-year sentence.

Separately, Johnson’s attorneys moved to suppress his statements to the police, arguing that he had not knowingly and intelligently waived his Miranda rights against self-incrimination. During the interviews, Johnson responded in different ways to the questions from officers. Sometimes, he would answer. Other times, he would pause, and the officers would repeat the question. On occasion, Johnson would remain silent. Eventually, Johnson told the officers he did not want to talk to them anymore, and he made no further statements. (At trial, Johnson’s attorneys would present evidence that Johnson had cognitive disabilities and suffered from Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, caused by his mother’s heavy drinking through her pregnancy.)

After an evidentiary hearing, Johnson’s attorneys sought to prevent the state from introducing evidence of his silence during the interviews. The state argued that introducing evidence of Johnson’s selective silence wasn’t prejudicial, but merely showed that his statements to law enforcement were voluntary. Judge Jamese Rhoades of Marion County Circuit Court ruled that the state could introduce evidence of Johnson’s silence in two instances.

During the trial’s opening statement, a prosecutor told jurors: “The defendant in this trial is going to try and tell you that the police somehow conspired against him, framed him, lied about things, and were generally incompetent in their investigation .... there is not one ounce of truth to what the defendant will try to tell you.”

John Shaw, a helicopter pilot, testified that he was driving down the street between 6:10 and 6:30 a.m. when he saw a man walking near Thompson’s apartment. Shaw did not make an identification. He said that Johnson was of the “same general build” as the man he saw and that the coat the man was wearing was “similar” to a coat seized from Johnson’s home.

Kathy Johnson (no relation) testified that she recognized Johnson from the community of drug users in Salem. She had told police that she once saw Johnson and Thompson go into a restroom, which she assumed involved trading sex for drugs. At the trial, she could not recall that incident.

Robert Schellong, who was in the Marion County Jail with Johnson during the summer of 1998, testified that Johnson told him he was at Thompson’s apartment on the night of the murder with a white man and a Black man named Sampson. According to Schellong, Johnson said that Thompson was going to connect him to her drug dealer. After the white man left, Sampson told Johnson to keep using Thompson as his dealer, which made Johnson upset, Schellong testified.

On cross-examination, Schellong testified that he wanted to cooperate in prosecuting Johnson because he did not want “somebody to get away with” Thompson’s murder. He said that Johnson never actually said that he killed or assaulted Thompson. Schellong also acknowledged that he had access to discovery documents in Johnson’s case because the two shared a cell.

Detective Craig Stoelk testified about the crime scene, particularly the bathroom, where investigators found two knives in the toilet bowl, two wet towels, and a sweater with blood stains. There was also blood around the shower and sink, and Stoelk testified that “this was a site of a cleanup after the assault had taken place.” The apartment was in disarray, and a trail of blood led from the kitchen to the bedrooms, which appeared to have been ransacked.

A medical examiner testified that Thompson had been stabbed in numerous places, but the fatal wound was a cut to her jugular vein. He said the knives found in her apartment could have caused her injuries. In addition, the medical examiner testified that Thompson had used a “fairly large” amount of cocaine prior to her death. In addition, a vaginal swab showed the presence of semen, indicating that Thompson had recently had sex, but there were no signs of injuries associated with a sexual assault. Johnson had been eliminated as a contributor to the semen sample.

Investigators had found the palm print of a man named Christopher Rodrigues on the toilet tank and matched his DNA to blood on one of the towels. Rodrigues testified that his mother had lived with Thompson in February and March 1998, and all three of them were drug users. He said that he had frequently seen drug dealers at Thompson’s apartment.

Rodrigues said he last visited Thompson’s apartment about a week before her death to retrieve some of his mother’s possessions. He said he did not kill Thompson and didn’t know who did.

A criminalist with the Oregon State Police Crime Laboratory testified that she performed DNA testing on evidence from the crime scene and compared it against 13 people, including Johnson. She said that Johnson’s DNA was found on a cigarette butt, but, other than Rodrigues’s DNA on the towel, none of the other evidence produced a lead. She testified that not all the items from the crime scene were tested, and that Johnson’s defense could have requested testing on these items.

Two witnesses, Vicki Free and Earl Jones, testified about encounters with Johnson shortly after the murder. Free said Johnson gave her some earrings that were similar to earrings owned by Thompson. Jones, who was engaged to Free, said he saw Johnson later that same day, and that Johnson was trying to trade jewelry, a watch, and some cellphones for drugs.

Stacey Satter testified that when she ran into Johnson in late March 1998 at a park, he had some jewelry that he wanted to trade for drugs. She gave the jewelry to Blocker, who was unable to complete the deal, so she ended up giving the jewelry to another man for $20 of methamphetamine. Blocker testified about his involvement in the scheme, and also said that Johnson had confessed to him that he killed and robbed Thompson after smoking cocaine with her. (Satter testified that she didn’t hear that alleged part of the conversation.)

Blocker had recanted these statements in an interview to a private investigator hired by Johnson’s attorneys. He acknowledged doing so but testified he had lied to the investigator because the investigator misrepresented himself.

The investigator had a recording of the interview showing no deception, but jurors never heard that evidence because of a technology glitch. Instead, they were given a correct version of the interview to review as part of the deliberations.

Willa McDowell testified that Johnson stayed with her in February and March 1998. She said the police came to her home and she showed them Johnson’s clothes. She said that she did not tell the police that Johnson’s favorite jacket was a blue denim jacket or that he had stopped wearing it in the days after Thompson’s death. (Quakenbush had testified that McDowell told the police that she found it unusual that Johnson had stopped wearing the jacket.)

Stoelk testified about Johnson’s interviews while in custody on the probation violation. “While I’m talking with him saying, ‘Hey. I need to talk to you about a murder,’ he is almost casual in his appearance,” Stoelk testified. “He’s got his arms crossed. He’s looking away, down, kind of off to the side of his lap. He would be nonresponsive to some statements and questions, so I’d have to repeat them to get him to respond to me. I told him that, you know, ‘Hey. I really need to talk to you about this situation. And I know you were there when this happened.’ And his response to that was to say, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’”

Stoelk testified about Johnson’s answers to his questions, including his response that Blocker was not lying. There was no electronic recording of this interview, and Stoelk said on cross-examination that he had a personal and unwritten policy of not recording interrogations until he was certain of a suspect’s answers. Stoelk said that he had initially viewed other persons as suspects in Thompson’s death but now believed Johnson acted alone.

Stoelk had been the investigator who noticed the similarity between the tread pattern of Johnson’s seized work boots and the prints left at Thompson’s apartment. During the prosecution’s case, he was unable to testify about his observations. But Johnson’s attorneys wanted Stoelk to testify for the defense about the two sets of shoe prints. The prints attributed to the sneaker were more extensive and closer to Thompson’s body, which the defense wanted to use to assert that the owner of those shoes was the real killer.

The defense also wanted to introduce a pair of Johnson’s tennis shoes to show their tread didn’t match the sneaker prints left at the crime scene and to introduce expert testimony that there were two sets of footprints in the apartment. The state objected, arguing that jurors would infer that its own analysts had not performed any testing on this evidence. As a compromise, Judge Rhoades ruled that the defense could only offer lay testimony about the prints. If it introduced expert testimony, then the suppressed evidence would be admitted.

After the defense introduced photos showing the two sets of prints, Stoelk took the stand as a non-expert defense witness and testified that Johnson had been wearing boots consistent with the boot prints at the crime scene. He was asked by a prosecutor whether Johnson’s boots “appeared to be similar to the heavy, cleated lug-type work boot impressions which you observed at the crime scene.” Stoelk testified that they were.

Johnson did not testify. Other defense witnesses testified about the extensive amount of DNA evidence that the state crime lab failed to test and the fingerprints that the Salem Police Department didn’t enter into a national database.

In addition, a man named Herman Sampson, known as “Pooh Bear,” testified that on the night Thompson was killed, two men—Datrick Swafford and “Fred”—came to his apartment between midnight and 4 a.m. Swafford had a paper sack, and Fred held a knife. Sampson, a drug dealer who supplied Thompson, said Swafford left the sack there, and Sampson looked inside and saw a shirt and pants with blood on them. Swafford returned the next day and retrieved the bag, Sampson said.

Swafford, who was also a drug dealer, had testified for the prosecution that he and Fred went to Thompson’s house twice on the night of the murder, and that he settled up with Thompson and the two men left.

Johnson’s attorneys said in their closing statements that the state failed to analyze other evidence that might point to Thompson’s real killer. “There are more questions as we sit here six years later than there are answers in this case,” Grefenson said.

Prosecutors argued that the evidence pointed to Johnson. “His cleated work sole boots [are] etched in blood, the same pattern observed by Detective Stoelk when he arrested the defendant,” a prosecutor said.

The jury convicted Johnson of aggravated murder on March 18, 2004. A week later, after a sentencing hearing, it recommended that Judge Rhoades sentence Johnson to death. She signed Johnson’s death warrant on March 31, 2004, stating, “I don’t believe I’ve ever had a defendant before me who has had less hope of rehabilitation than you.”

Before his sentence was imposed, Johnson said: “I’m innocent of this crime. I didn’t kill Harriet.”

Johnson appealed his conviction. He asserted that Stoelk’s testimony about his silence prejudiced the jury and that the nearly six years between his arrest and trial violated his right to a speedy trial, an issue he had already raised before Judge Rhoades. Johnson said the memories of many of the state’s witnesses had faded, damaging his ability to mount a vigorous defense that asserted he came into possession of Thompson’s possessions because he dealt with stolen property, not through her murder.

Because of Johnson’s death sentence, the appeal went directly to the Oregon Supreme Court, which affirmed the conviction and sentence on April 19, 2007. The court said there actually hadn’t been any trial testimony about Johnson’s silence. It also said that the delay in bringing the case to trial was not unreasonable, given the lengthy appeals process regarding the illegal seizure of Johnson’s clothing. The prejudice Johnson claimed to have suffered because of the delay was unsupported by the trial testimony, the court said.

In 2011, Governor John Kitzhaber announced a moratorium on executions in Oregon. (The state’s last execution had taken place in 1997.)

In 2012, Johnson filed a petition for relief, claiming that Partridge and Grefenson had been ineffective in their representation during the guilt and penalty phases of his trial. The petition would be amended several times.

According to the amended petitions, Partridge should have recused himself from representing Johnson, because he had previously represented Thompson. The petition said this led to an erosion of trust between Johnson and Partridge, and that the defense didn’t properly investigate or present sufficient evidence of Thompson’s illegal activities and the dangerous and violent people to whom she owed money.

In addition, the petition said the trial attorneys failed to secure expert testimony to challenge Shaw’s identification. The motion included a report based on a re-creation of what Shaw would have seen as he drove past in the dark at 30-35 mph. “Shaw could not have made any kind of an identification under those circumstances,” the petition said.

Johnson’s post-conviction legal team—including attorneys James Lang, Mike Charlton, and David Groom—had obtained an affidavit from Georgia McBride, Schellong’s former wife. She said that Schellong told her that he was placed in Johnson’s cell to get information from him. McBride said that Schellong had said that Johnson didn’t kill Thompson, but he was okay with saying he did because Johnson was a bad man and Schellong’s sentence would be greatly reduced if he helped the police.

McBride said she had worked as an informant for Quakenbush and that she told him in 20o2 that Johnson was innocent and that Schellong was lying. This information wasn’t provided to Johnson’s trial attorneys.

Separately, in 2013, a former neighbor of Thompson’s named Patricia Hubbard gave a deposition and said that early in the morning on the day of the murder, she heard a loud fight and then saw a thin, white man with long hair run out of Thompson’s apartment.

According to Hubbard, the police discouraged her when she approached them later that day. “It’s a known drug house,” an officer told her, according to the deposition. “We don’t need your help.”

Later, she told a detective about the white man she saw. According to Hubbard, the detective responded, “A n----- got murdered, and a n----- is going to pay for it.”

The petition also said the prosecutor’s opening statement was improper because it implied jurors would hear from Johnson, which prejudiced him when he chose to exercise his right to not testify.

The petition asserted that the trial attorneys improperly framed their defense around mitigation of guilt rather than innocence, based on the theory that Johnson was present in the apartment but not the actual killer. They had moved for the suppression of the boots before the items were tested. (The testing showed no blood on the boots or the other clothes illegally seized by the police.) Later, at trial, they tried to indirectly introduce the boots to support their theory, based on a misunderstanding with an expert witness they had hired. (Grefenson thought the expert had said Johnson’s boots were the source of the boot print, but the expert had said they were in the same class of boot, but it was impossible to individualize the print to Johnson’s boots.)

“Counsel’s failure to understand the forensic science underlying the footwear comparison and to understand the significance of the absence of blood led to an [even] more egregious failure to investigate,” the petition said. “As Mr. Partridge, now Judge Partridge admitted in his deposition, their conclusion that Mr. Johnson’s boots made the suspect prints in Ms. Thompson’s apartment informed their entire defensive strategy.”

During trial preparation, Johnson’s attorneys had learned that McDowell’s daughter, Vickie Fusselman, said that Johnson was with McDowell watching a movie at the time of the murder. She knew the date because her mother was taping the movie for her, and they had talked by phone that evening. The attorneys didn’t believe an alibi defense was viable and didn’t call Fusselman to testify.

In 2015, Judge Gary Reynolds of Marion County Circuit Court denied Johnson’s post-conviction relief petition. He agreed with Johnson’s post-conviction attorneys that the trial attorneys should have had more items with blood evidence tested for DNA and that they did an inadequate job of canvassing the neighborhood to find witnesses, including Hubbard. But Judge Reynolds said neither deficiency merited a new trial.

Speaking about Hubbard, Judge Reynolds wrote, “Taking into consideration that the trial produced other evidence that coincided with what she would have testified to and the long period of time between the killing and when she was asked to try to identify Petitioner, the court is not persuaded that the absence of her testimony would have prejudiced Petitioner.”

After the ruling, attorneys with the Oregon Innocence Project filed a motion in 2016 that sought DNA testing on 37 other pieces of evidence, arguing that advances in testing could open up new investigative leads and point to Thompson’s real killer. A judge denied that motion in 2018, ruling this potential new evidence didn’t show a clear pathway to innocence. Previously, Johnson’s legal team had been able to test a small number of items post-conviction, but the judge’s ruling prevented DNA testing of additional evidence. One of the items tested was the semen sample from the vaginal swab, and its genetic profile was uploaded to the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). The swab's profile matched the profile of another man.

Johnson appealed the circuit court rulings denying post-conviction relief and denying the DNA testing motion.

Represented by Ryan O’Connor and Jed Peterson in the post-conviction appeal, Johnson re-asserted many of the claims from the amended petitions but emphasized three mistakes made by the trial attorneys.

First was the failure to locate Hubbard. The second was a failure to conduct additional DNA testing, which—according to the post-conviction DNA testing—would have shown two unidentified contributors in “incriminating locations.” The third was a failure to impeach the credibility of Stoelk and Quakenbush with the court rulings from the suppression hearings. “That evidence, among other evidence, creates substantial doubt about petitioner’s guilt, and this court should reverse and remand for a new trial,” the appeal said.

With regards to Hubbard, the state’s argument was two-fold. First, it said that the six hours Johnson’s attorneys spent canvassing the neighborhood was sufficient. Second, it said that the lower court was correct in discounting Hubbard’s statement, because it merely corroborated the testimony of other witnesses.

On October 6, 2021, the Oregon Court of Appeals reversed the lower court and vacated Johnson’s conviction. It agreed with Judge Reynolds that the trial attorneys had been deficient in failing to locate Hubbard but also said that her testimony could have led to a different outcome at trial.

It was true, the court wrote, that her testimony lined up in places with other witnesses, but it also differed in key ways. Schellong, for example, had testified that Johnson told him that a white man left Thompson’s apartment before him. In Hubbard’s account, the white man came “flying” out after a commotion. In addition, Hubbard’s statement suggested racial bias and tunnel vision on the part of investigators.

“Finally, trial counsel had strategic choices to make about the defense theory of the case,” the court wrote. “Counsel ultimately made choices that allowed evidence that had previously been suppressed to be introduced at trial in support of a defense theory that petitioner was present for the murder, but less culpable than the person who had left a distinct set of shoeprints. Hubbard’s information could have helped counsel to settle on a defense theory that was not partially inculpatory.”

Johnson, now represented by Rich Wolf and Lynne Morgan, remained incarcerated after his conviction was vacated while prosecutors considered whether to retry the case.

On September 5, 2023, the Marion County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the case. In a filing, prosecutors said, “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.”

Johnson walked out of the Marion County Jail that afternoon. Including the six years he had been in jail awaiting trial, he had been incarcerated for more than 25 years. “I was failed by the system,” Johnson, told the Oregonian newspaper. “The detectives built a circumstantial case in a capital murder, with no forensic evidence to tie me to the crime. It was all lies.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 10/5/2023
Last Updated: 10/5/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1998
Age at the date of reported crime:37
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes