Sarah Johnson was 18 years old when she was sentenced to two life terms for the murder of her parents in their Bellevue, Idaho, home. Diane and Alan Johnson were found dead from gunshot wounds on Sept. 2, 2003; Diane still in bed, and Alan on the floor, his hair wet from the shower.
The evidence against Sarah was damning. A latex glove and bathrobe found in a trash can outside the house contained Sarah’s DNA as well as that of her parents. A leather glove found at the scene contained gunshot residue; the other glove from that pair was found in the bedroom. The jury at her trial heard the prosecution describe how Sarah, just 16 at the time, took a Winchester rifle from the guesthouse and shot her unsuspecting parents in cold blood. Her parents, prosecutors said, were upset with Sarah for spending the night with her boyfriend, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. The Idaho supreme court upheld her conviction. Under the terms of her sentence, Sarah can never be paroled.
In 2011, two attorneys–Dennis Benjamin and Deborah Whipple–began working pro bono to have Sarah exonerated. They are backed by the Idaho Innocence project, which seeks to exonerate inmates based on new DNA evidence. Robert Kerchusky, a former FBI agent who heads the Idaho Innocence Project, claims that fingerprint evidence found at the scene points to another killer. Benjamin and Whipple argue that not all of the DNA evidence found at the scene was tested, and that new testing methods could identify other suspects. They also argue that Sarah’s counsel throughout her trial was “ineffective.”
So far, there is no new trial set for Sarah, now 25. Fifth District Court Judge G. Richard Bevan denied Benjamin and Whipple’s request for a new trial in 2011, but ruled in June 2012 that their filings deserved “further attention.” In July, Bevan ruled that the case be assigned to attorneys Keith Roark and Douglas Nelson of the Roark Law Firm, which has a public defender contract with Blaine County, Idaho.