Friday, March 18, 2005

Johnson guilty of killing parents

Sentencing scheduled for May 19 in Blaine County

Express Staff Writer

Following her conviction on two counts of murder in the first degree on Wednesday morning, Sarah Johnson was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs for the first time since her trial began on Feb. 1. She was found guilty of shooting and killing her parents, Diane and Alan Johnson, Sept. 2, 2003, in their Bellevue home. Photo by Willy Cook

"We lost another member of our family today."

That's how Alan Johnson's sister, Lynn Murrill, described the conviction Wednesday of Sarah M. Johnson on two counts of first degree murder for shooting and killing her parents Sept. 2, 2003, in Bellevue. Alan and Diane Johnson were found shot and killed at their home, and their daughter, Sarah, is the only person known to have been in the home at the time.

Sarah Johnson's hands and body trembled visibly as she waited for a verdict from 12 Ada County jurors, who deliberated for 11 hours, beginning Monday afternoon. As a bailiff handed the verdict to a clerk, the 18-year-old's hands were together and on her forehead, as if in prayer. She wept openly, and her entire body shook.

As the verdict was read, she buried her head in her hands.

"Is Sarah Marie Johnson not guilty or guilty of murder in the first degree of Diane Marie Johnson?" Clerk Cindy Eagle-Ervin read from the jury's verdict. "Guilty," she continued. "Is Sarah Marie Johnson not guilty or guilty of murder in the first degree of Alan Scott Johnson? Guilty."

Johnson's weeping deepened into sobs.

The jury also found the teen guilty on two counts of using a firearm in committing the crimes. She was handcuffed and led out of the courtroom, her face beet red against her signature pink sweater.

"There are no winners here," said Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling following the conviction.

Fifth District Judge Barry Wood scheduled a sentencing hearing for May 19 and 20 in 5th District Court in Hailey. Johnson could spend the rest of her life in prison for the crimes.

The 18-year-old faces up to two life terms, plus two 15-year terms for each firearm enhancement. At a bare minimum, Wood could impose two 10-year prison terms that run concurrently, for a total of 10 years.

But prosecutors indicated they would seek maximum sentences.

"I don't think Sarah needs to get out," Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Thomas said. "We're going to ask for a lot of time."

Thomas characterized the prosecution's victory as "bittersweet."

"It's a big emotional release for me," he said.

But the county's deputy prosecuting attorney, Justin Whatcott, qualified his colleague's response.

"This doesn't provide any closure to them," the family, he said. Justice was served today, but Diane and Alan Johnson are still gone and the family is faced with the killer being a member of their own family. I don't think this will make them happy or bring them any closure."

Prosecutors claimed that at the age of 16, Johnson shot her mother in the head with a .264-caliber rifle as she slept in the family's Bellevue home and then shot her father in the chest as he stepped out of the shower. They surmise that the teen shot her parents over a dispute about a 19-year-old man she dated for three months.

Johnson's defense attorney, Bob Pangburn, claimed someone else killed the couple. Before the verdict, Pangburn was optimistic. Afterward, he maintained his client's innocence.

"Sarah has not admitted to us she did anything, and I still believe she didn't," Pangburn said.

Pangburn said he would handle the girl's appeal.

Following the verdict, The Times News reported, a defense investigator gave a Times News corespondent a signed statement from Sarah Johnson: "I am grieving the loss of my parents. I have lost my family, my home, my friends and my community. I want to thank the people who believe in me and support me, especially my guardian and adoptive family."

Diane Johnson's parents, Pat and Dean Dishman, said the trial was difficult on everybody.

"When they showed the pictures and things, I left the room. I prayed a lot," said Pat Dishman, who qualified that the family still loves Sarah Johnson. "We prayed for justice."

But justice was difficult to swallow, said Murrill.

"We still don't understand it, and I don't know if we ever will," she said. She described her brother and sister-in-law as "very good people, somebody who just can't be replaced."

She continued.

"He was just an awesome brother. He and Diane were just such awesome people We still don't understand it, and I don't know if we ever will."

She characterized Sarah Johnson's conviction as "something that had to be done."

When Johnson's verdict was read, Alan Johnson's brother, Brian Higgason, and Sarah Johnson's brother, Matt Johnson, openly wept and released pent-up emotions from six weeks of a trying family ordeal.

A "bittersweet victory" indeed.

Despite Sarah Johnson's conviction, there are questions about the Sept. 2, 2003, murders of Alan and Diane Johnson that may never be answered. Idaho Attorney General Investigator Scott Birch, who assisted prosecutors, called the case "one of the more complex" ones he has seen.

How did Sarah Johnson get in her parents' room? Did she enter through the sliding glass door from the outside or from the home's hallway? What were the mechanics of the crime?

"I don't know that it's the verdict we expected, but it's the verdict we hoped for," Birch said.

Following the verdict, members of the jury were reported to have met with Judge Wood and were also reported to be in a state of emotional distress. They declined to meet with reporters.

Johnson was arrested Oct. 30, 2003, nearly two months after her parents were killed. She will be jailed in Blaine County until her May sentencing hearing. Femling said she could have been transported back to Blaine County as early as Wednesday afternoon.

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