Fifth District Court Judge G. Richard Bevan ordered this week that convicted murderer Sarah Johnson is entitled to new legal counsel in continuing post-conviction-relief proceedings.
Bevan did not specify who Johnson's new counsel will be. However, his ruling effectively means that Blaine County will have to pay again for Johnson's legal representation.
Bevan made his ruling following a telephone hearing on Monday involving Jessica Lorello, a deputy attorney for the Idaho Attorney General's Office, and Boise attorney Dennis Benjamin, who has been working without charge on Johnson's case for the past year.
Benjamin, with the assistance of co-counsel Deborah Whipple, both of the Boise law firm of Nevin, Benjamin, McKay & Bartlett, filed motions in April requesting that Bevan vacate a decision he made more than a year ago denying Johnson a new trial.
Further, Benjamin and Whipple claim in recent court filings that new DNA analytical techniques could provide new evidence showing that Johnson is not guilty of killing her parents in 2003. Benjamin and Whipple also allege that Johnson's defense has been hindered throughout the history of her case by ineffective legal counsel.
Bevan's decision does not reopen the Sarah Johnson post-conviction case, but Benjamin said Wednesday that Bevan's ruling shows that the judge found merit in the new arguments.
"Sarah needs competent counsel to help her, so it is a good first step," Benjamin said. "The judge had to review the proceedings and decide there was sufficient meat there."
The Idaho Attorney General's Office, which is representing the state of Idaho in the Johnson case, declined to comment Wednesday on Bevan's decision.
Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Thomas, who prosecuted the Johnson murder case, earlier strongly criticized attempts to reopen post-conviction proceedings for Johnson, but offered no comment on Bevan's latest ruling, other than to confirm that Johnson's new attorney will be paid from the Blaine County general fund.
Benjamin and Whipple are joined in their defense of Johnson by the Idaho Innocence Project, which has also been working on the case pro bono.
Greg Hampikian, a nationally renowned DNA expert and director of the Idaho Innocence Project, said Wednesday that he's pleased with Bevan's decision.
"It is extremely rare that a 16-year-old girl, with no history of violence, kills both parents at close range, and the doubts raised at trial could potentially be answered by new DNA testing," Hampikian said.
Johnson, now 25, is currently serving two life sentences without the possibility of parole for the murders of her parents, Alan and Diane Johnson, at the couple's home in Bellevue on Sept. 2, 2003. She was sentenced in 2005 by 5th District Court Judge Barry Wood after being found guilty by a jury of two counts of first-degree murder.
Benjamin, who specializes in post-conviction-relief cases, filed a motion in April requesting that new legal counsel be appointed for Johnson, but not specifically requesting that he or Whipple get the appointment.
In his ruling, Bevan ordered that Johnson's new counsel be selected from among the attorneys who now have public defender contracts with Blaine County. That would include Hailey attorneys Cheri Hicks, Douglas Werth and Christopher Simms, Ketchum attorney Dan Dolan, and the Roark Law Firm in Hailey.
The order specifies that an attorney without a conflict of interest in Johnson-related cases receive the appointment. Bevan already ruled that Simms is not eligible because he represented Johnson in earlier post-conviction proceedings.
If Blaine County does not appoint an attorney by June 25, Bevan ruled that he will make the appointment himself.
Blaine County has spent more than $1.1 million already on the Johnson trial and earlier post-conviction-relief proceedings.
Terry Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org