Convicted killer Sarah Johnson seeks new trial

Credit: Troy Colson/KTVB

Convicted killer Sarah Johnson seeks new trial


by Scott Evans

Bio | Email | Follow: @ScottEvansKTVB


Posted on December 7, 2010 at 12:06 AM

Updated Sunday, Nov 24 at 9:21 PM

TWIN FALLS -- A Blaine County woman convicted in 2005 of killing her parents wants a new trial and returned to the courtroom today.

Sarah Johnson was 16 when her parents, Alan and Diane, were found dead in their Bellevue home.

Now 23 years old, she claims her former lawyer was ineffective and that she's still innocent.

The judge heard opening statements Tuesday morning from Sarah Johnson's attorney Christopher Simms, as well as from the state attorneys.

"There is no question on September 2nd, 2003, that there was a horrendous and gruesome and terrifying event that occurred in Blaine County," said Simms.

That event was the murder of Alan and Diane Johnson, Sarah Johnson's parents who were shot to death with a high-powered rifle in their bedroom.

Two years later, a jury found Sarah Johnson guilty for both murders, and she was sentenced to serve two life terms without parole.

Now, five years later, Johnson is back in court with a different attorney fighting for another trial.
Johnson's attorney believes the defense attorney at the time of the trial, Robert Pangburn, did not prepare properly for the trial.

An example of that is that there was information that wasn't shared with the entire defense team, information that was kept in the trunk of the lead attorney, Pangburn, for weeks before it was shared.

"We have pointed the finger at Mr. Pangburn as being ineffective in his assistance in a constitutional way," said Simms.

Simms says the lead attorney in the murder trial did not represent his client to the best of his ability.

"He didn't have just common human lapses," said Simms. "He was busy talking to CNN, he was busy talking to Nancy Grace instead of preparing this young lady's case. That's despicable."

One of the witnesses in Tuesday's civil trial was Patrick Dunn, a criminal investigator and part of Sarah Johnson's defense team.

"You, in summary, allege that Bob Pangburn was unprepared didn't you?" asked Simms.

"Yes I did," replied Dunn.

"And had you ever made that allegation before?" asked Simms.

"No, I haven't," said Dunn.

This trial is not to decide or break down the facts of the case, but rather what the defense knew and what it did with that information.

"I submit to you, your honor, that there is no question, there will be no question that the council's performance was deficient," said Simms. "This is a systemic failure not one man's failings."

Tuesday was day one of what's looking like to be at least a four-day hearing where several witnesses will be called, including Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling, who was the sheriff at the time of the murders.

At the time of the murders, then-16-year-old Sarah was dating 19-year-old Bruno Santos, a Mexican in the country illegally.

Sarah's parents did not approve of this relationship and went as far as telling Santos to no longer see their daughter.

Santos has since been convicted of drug crimes.

The hope now is to convince the judge that the 2005 murder trial was not done properly and hold a new trial.

Judge G. Richard Bevan is handling this case which is expected to last all week.

Johnson is in court for the trial. She is currently being held in prison at the Pocatello Women's Correctional Center.

She is wearing an orange jumpsuit with handcuffs on her wrists and ankles.

She has not spoken in court and has showed very little emotion during the proceedings.

Simms said the Blaine County Sheriff quickly pinned the murders on Johnson, and other officers and investigators fell in line with that theory.

"Very quickly, within an hour and a half after this incident, within an hour and a half of this incident Sarah Johnson, their 16 year old daughter had been identified as the killer by police, and she was relentlessly prosecuted to the exclusion of all other suspects," Attorney Christopher Simms said.

Simms said the first people on scene did not believe Johnson could have killed her parents.

"There was no expert, there was no lay person, there was no law enforcement person who said that it was possible initially that she could have committed this crime because she had no blood on her. She had no gunshot residue on her," Simms said.

Johnson's former attorney Robert Pangburn used the lack of blood evidence on Johnson as his defense strategy, but Simms said Pangburn didn't show the jury some evidence that could have helped that case. One example he gave is a tape from one of the first officers on scene the morning of the murder shows police talking about how they didn't think Johnson could have done it.

Pangburn explained Tuesday why he didn't admit the tape as evidence in the trial in 2005.

"It really was hard to understand, and I don't believe it would have added much to the case. It certainly wouldn't have detracted from the case so to the extent that it's something that may have helped and couldnt' have hurt, yeah, it probably was a mistake not to put that in." Pangburn said.

The judge is expected to hear that tape Wednesday as he considers whether Pangburn provided ineffective counsel and Johnson should have a retrial.

The Blaine County Sheriff is expected to testify Wednesday.
Simms says new evidence shows there were fingerprints on the murder weapon that weren't identified during the trial.  He says they've now been identified and matched to someone that is not Sarah Johnson.

This hearing is expected to last through the end of the week, after which the judge will decide whether Johnson will be retried.