Oregon man freed after more than two decades on death row

SALEM, Ore. (KGW) — Jesse Lee Johnson walked out of the Marion County Jail Tuesday evening. The 62-year-old had been behind bars for 25 years for a murder he denied committing. He was convicted and sentenced to death in 2004.

“It was emotional to see on his face just this feeling of freedom,” Eric Mason said.

Mason is a private investigator who spent years working with the Oregon Innocence Project to free Johnson, who was charged in 1998 with killing Harriet Thompson in her Salem apartment. In 2004, despite his claims of innocence, Johnson was convicted and sentenced to death for killing the mother of five.

“This was the kind of case that kept you up at night,” Mason said. “You were thinking, man this guy didn’t do it and he’s there at Oregon State Penitentiary for a long time on death row and now he’s breathing wonderful clean air.”

Mason said it is possible because of an eyewitness account from one of the victim’s neighbors, who was never interviewed by police or Johnson’s original defense team. The neighbor said the man she saw running from the victim’s apartment after the murder was not Johnson.

“For her to say a tall, white, shaggy-haired man looking like Charlie Manson went running from the house just after the screaming stopped and he’s white and the man on death row is Black, you knew there was a problem with the case from the beginning,” Mason said.

That testimony is why in October 2021 the Oregon Court of Appeals reversed Johnson’s murder conviction and ordered a new trial. Fast forward to this week, the state filed a motion to dismiss the case. Prosecutors said they could not prove Johnson’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt because certain evidence is unavailable and many critical trial witnesses are deceased.

RELATED: Oregon Court of Appeals orders retrial for man on death row for Salem murder

“For some reason Oregon really, really doesn’t like to admit they got the wrong guy,” Mason said.

Regardless, a judge ruled that Johnson should be freed. On Tuesday, out from behind bars, he walked into the arms of supporters who never doubted him.

“It was stunning after years of waiting for this,” Mason said.

Prosecutors in the Marion County District Attorney’s Office declined to comment.

It is worth noting that since aggravated murder and murder are crimes that can be charged at any time and are not barred by the statue of limitations, if new evidence is discovered or becomes available that implicates a different suspect, the case could then be revived and presented to a grand jury.

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