In 1998, a neighbor in Salem, Oregon, saw a white guy depart the scene after hearing cries from Harriet “Sunny” Thompson’s house. Yet, a Black man named Jesse Johnson was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.
After spending 25 years in prison, Johnson was finally released this week after prosecutors opted against pursuing a retrial. It had been two years since the Oregon Court of Appeals had overturned his conviction.
Unfortunately for the jurors in Johnson’s case, neighbor Patricia Hubbard did not have the chance to testify about what she saw and heard that night. Hubbard told authorities after Johnson’s conviction that when she began to describe what she had seen to a police detective, he interrupted her twice with racist slurs, saying that a Black lady was murdered and a Black guy would be held responsible for it.
The appeals court that reversed Johnson’s conviction in October 2021 highlighted that Johnson’s counsel did not try to contact Hubbard during the trial.
Johnson’s attorneys at the Oregon Innocence Project claimed gross unfairness on the part of the state in their appeal filing. A detective working the case made blatantly racist comments as he tried to dissuade a witness from saying that she saw a white male fleeing the site of the murder. Due to the passage of time and the lack of available evidence, the district attorney’s office has asked the Marion County Circuit Court to drop the case against Johnson.
On Tuesday afternoon, Johnson was seen on camera leaving the Salem jail with a sheriff’s officer and a cart of personal items. He refused to take a plea bargain and insisted on his innocence.
The Oregon Innocence Project had asked the court for permission to do more DNA testing on the location of the crime, but the appeals court had already overturned Johnson’s conviction