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Man Freed After 24 Years on Death Row for Murder He says He Didn’t Commit

Jesse Johnson, a 60-year-old Oregon man who spent 24 years on death row for a murder he says he didn’t commit, walked out of jail a free man on Monday, September 5, 2023. His release came after the Marion County District Attorney’s office decided not to retry him for the 1998 killing of Harriet Thompson, a 28-year-old mother of two.

Johnson was convicted of stabbing Thompson to death in her Salem apartment on November 28, 1998. He was arrested after his fingerprint was found on a knife in the apartment. He claimed that he had been at the apartment earlier that day to buy drugs from Thompson’s boyfriend, but left before the murder occurred. He said that he had touched the knife while looking for a spoon to cook heroin.

However, his trial lawyer failed to present any evidence or witnesses to support his alibi. He also failed to challenge the prosecution’s theory that Johnson killed Thompson in a fit of rage after she rejected his sexual advances. The jury found him guilty of aggravated murder and sentenced him to death.

Johnson appealed his conviction, arguing that his lawyer was ineffective and that the police and prosecutors had engaged in racial discrimination. He pointed out that he was the only black person involved in the case and that he had been subjected to racial slurs and threats by the police. He also presented new evidence that cast doubt on his guilt, such as DNA tests that excluded him as the source of blood and semen found at the crime scene, and phone records that corroborated his alibi.

In 2021, the Oregon Court of Appeals reversed his conviction and ordered a new trial. The court found that his lawyer had failed to provide adequate representation and that there was evidence of racial bias in the investigation. The court also noted that there was no physical or eyewitness evidence linking Johnson to the murder, and that the fingerprint on the knife was not conclusive proof of his presence at the time of the crime.

The Marion County District Attorney’s office announced on September 3, 2023 that they would not retry Johnson, saying that they could not prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. They said that they respected the court’s decision and that they hoped for justice and healing for Thompson’s family.

Johnson was released from jail two days later, surrounded by his family and supporters. He said that he was grateful for his freedom and that he hoped to start a new life. He also said that he forgave those who wronged him and that he prayed for Thompson’s soul.

“I’m just happy to be alive,” he said. “I’m not bitter. I’m not angry. I’m just thankful.”