Johnson v. Premo

Petitioner was convicted of aggravated murder and sentenced to death for killing a fifteen-year-old girl, HF. The state’s theory of the case was that petitioner had killed HF intentionally in furtherance of, or in an effort to conceal, the commission of sexual offenses against her. The state presented evidence that petitioner drugged HF with morphine, raped her, strangled her to death, then threw her body off a bridge. The sole defense theory presented by his trial counsel was that HF had not died as theorized by the state, but, instead, had died of drowning after petitioner threw her off the bridge. As a consequence, counsel argued, petitioner was entitled to an acquittal because the state had not initiated the prosecution in the county in which he had drowned HF. That defense was unsuccessful, and the jury convicted petitioner and sentenced him to death. Petitioner argued on appeal that, because, based on the evidence in the record, the jury could have found that the place of HF’s death could not be readily determined, and a venue defense was not viable in light of the alternative venue provisions of ORS 131.325. Counsel’s sole reliance on a weak technical defense made the penalty phase of his trial much more challenging. Petitioner asserted counsel should have pursued a morphine-overdose theory of the case, in light of petitioner’s statement to his defense team that he woke up after having sex with HF and discovered that she was dead. Petitioner further asserted that, if counsel had consulted a toxicologist, they would have developed credible evidence that HF died of a drug overdose, thus rebutting the state’s evidence that she died by strangulation. The post-conviction court agreed with petitioner with respect to that claim and, accordingly, granted relief. The Court of Appeals affirmed. The Oregon Supreme Court did not view the relevant inquiry as how many experts should have been consulted; the “evaluation of counsel’s adequacy was more nuanced than that.” The Court determined the dispositive issue, rather, was whether adequate trial counsel would have attempted to develop a theory of defense that HF already was dead from a drug overdose when petitioner threw her body off the bridge. The Court concluded petitioner demonstrated that counsel’s failure to adequately investigate that defense affected the result of his trial. The decision of the Court of Appeals and the judgment of the circuit court were affirmed. View "Johnson v. Premo" on Justia Law