Two men, both initially sentenced to death, are exonerated after serving decades


Two men, one in Oregon and the other in Oklahoma, both initially sentenced to death, who spent a combined 73 years in prison, have been released in the past couple of months based on evidence of their innocence. 

Jesse Johnson

Jesse Johnson, 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 Attorney’s 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. 

Glynn Simmons

Glynn Simmons was 22 when he and Don Roberts were convicted and sentenced to death in Oklahoma in 1975 for the murder of Carolyn Sue Rogers.After a U.S. Supreme Court decision, both men were resentenced to life in 1977. Roberts was released in 2008, but Simmons remained imprisoned for the next 46 years. 

In April, Oklahoma County District Court Attorney Vicki Behenna asked the court to vacate Simmons’ conviction and sentence “due to a potential Brady violation uncovered during a thorough review of the case in preparation for an evidentiary hearing.”

And in July, after Oklahoma County District Court Judge Amy Palumbo held a status hearing, she vacated Simmons’ conviction and sentence, ordered a new trial, and he was released on bond.

Behenna said in a statement that she decided not to retry Simmons because her review of the case convinced her that the “state will not be able to meet its burden at trial and prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Simmons was responsible for Ms. Rogers’ murder.” Among the “numerous reasons” she listed in explaining her decision, she cited that, according to the defense, an alternate suspect in the murder was identified in one of the lineups, but it was never disclosed to the defense team or the jury. 

Simmons spent 48 years in prison, one of the longest sentences, if not the longest, of any person in the United States. He is now 70 years old and battling liver cancer, according to an online post. 

The state would have taken his life and, failing at that, stole 48 years of his life, but Simmons is not defeated. “I plan to use my remaining time to help others who are still stuck where I was. We need to fix this system so that what happened to me will never happen to anyone else, ever again!” he posted.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Jesse Johnson and Glynn Simmons are the 194th and 195th persons exonerated after being sentenced to death since 1973. 

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