A man who spent 17 years on Oregon’s death row for a crime he didn’t commit is free


A man who spent 17 years on Oregon’s death row and 25 years in custody for a crime he didn’t commit was freed earlier this month. He is the 194th person exonerated from death row since 1973, the Death Penalty Information Center reported. 

Jesse Johnson was convicted and sentenced to death for killing Harriet Lavern Thompson in Salem in March 1998. He maintained his innocence from the time he was arrested. After he refused a plea deal of first-degree manslaughter and first-degree robbery, he was tried and convicted on an aggravated murder charge and sentenced to death in 2004, despite the lack of DNA or other evidence linking him to the crime.

In 2021, his conviction and death sentence were overturned after an appeals court found that his defense team had failed to interview Thompson’s neighbor, who saw a white man fleeing Thompson’s home the night of the murder. (Johnson is Black, as was Harriet Thompson.) The witness, Patricia Hubbard, had approached a police officer after the murder to tell him about the man she saw fleeing the scene, but according to her, the investigator replied, “A n***** got murdered, a n***** is going to pay for it,” and discouraged her from sharing the information.

Johnson’s lawyers never spoke to Hubbard, which the appeals court said indicated deficient performance, noting that her testimony could have changed the verdict.

Johnson, now 62, has remained in prison since his sentence was overturned in 2021, and according to Alice Lundell, Communications Director at the Oregon Justice Resource Center, which represented Johnson from 2014-2021, waited for a retrial until last week. The night before his hearing was scheduled, Johnson’s trial attorneys “received a call from the Marion County District Attorneys Office informing them the case would be dismissed. Jesse was released from jail within two hours.”

The overwhelming injustice of Jesse Johnson’s case continues, however. According to Lundell, he “was released with no advance notice, no assets, minimal immediate job prospects, and a minimal support network. The nature of the dismissal is sure to make it so there is a long road ahead of Jesse receiving compensation.”

Johnson is “the first known Oregon death row exoneree, certainly the only one of the modern era that is known,” she noted.

Oregon has had a moratorium on execution since 2011, and last December, Gov. Kate Brown commuted all death sentences. 

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