Death Row Inmate Freed After Decision Reversed — 17 Years Later

( – An Oregon man has been released from prison after spending over a decade on death row. Jesse Johnson was convicted of murder in 2004 and sentenced to death, but in 2021, his conviction was reversed on appeal. Now, at last, he’s free.

In 1998, nurse’s aide Harriet Thompson, known as “Sunny,” was stabbed to death in her Salem, Oregon home. Johnson was arrested a week after the crime for breaking parole, and his fingerprints and a cigarette butt containing his DNA were found in Thompson’s apartment. He was convicted of her murder in 2004. The jury called for the death penalty, but Johnson always maintained his innocence and refused a plea deal. He spent the next 17 years on death row at the Oregon State Penitentiary, although then-governor John Kitzhaber (D) imposed a freeze on executions in 2011.

Then, in 2021, Johnson’s case reached the Oregon Court of Appeals. The court found that evidence vital to his defense hadn’t been heard during his trial, including the fact a neighbor had seen a white man — Johnson is black — running away from the murder scene after sounds of a fight inside Thompson’s home. The neighbor, Patricia Hubbard, says she told a police officer about this but was told not to make a formal statement. Based on this evidence, the appeals court ordered a new trial and gave the state 35 days to challenge the decision.

Last year, Governor Kate Brown (D) commuted all 17 outstanding death sentences in Oregon and had the state’s execution chamber demolished. Meanwhile, prosecutors continued to look for ways to hold a retrial. Finally, they gave up. On September 5, the Marion County DA’s office asked the county circuit court to dismiss the case, saying, “based upon the amount of time that has passed … the state no longer believes that it can prove the defendant’s guilt.” The same day, 25 years after his arrest, Johnson walked free from prison.

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