VictimsAlan, 46, and Diane Johnson, 52, lived in an attractive home that sat on two acres of land in an affluent suburb in the small community of Bellevue, Idaho. They had been married for 20 years and were devoted to each other and to their two children, Matt and Sarah.
The Johnsons were well liked in the community. Alan was the co-owner of a popular landscaping company and Sarah worked for a financial firm.
The CrimeIn the early morning hours of September 2, 2003, Sarah Johnson ran out of her home, screaming for help. She told neighbors that her parents had just been murdered.
When police arrived, they found Diane Johnson lying under the covers of her bed, dead from a shotgun blast that had removed most of her head. Alan Johnson was found lying next to the bed, dead from a gunshot wound to his chest.
The shower was running and Alan’s body was wet. Based on wet bloody footprints and blood splatters, it appeared that he had stepped out of the shower and was then shot, but managed to walk towards Diane before collapsing and bleeding to death.
The Crime SceneThe police immediately secured the crime scene including sectioning off an entire block around the house. In a trashcan outside of the Johnson’s home investigators found a bloody pink bathrobe and two gloves – a left-handed leather glove and a right-handed latex glove.
Inside the home detectives found a trail of blood spatters, tissue and bone fragments that went from the Johnson’s bedroom, into the hall, and across to Sarah Johnson’s bedroom.
A .264 Winchester Magnum rifle was found in the master bedroom. Two butcher knives, with the tips of the blades touching, had been placed on the end of the Johnson’s bed. A magazine of bullets was also found in Sarah’s bedroom, which was located around 20 feet across the hall from the Johnson's bedroom.
There was no evidence of forced entry into the home.
Sarah Johnson Talks to PoliceWhen Sarah Johnson first talked to the police she said that she woke up around 6:15 a.m. and heard her parent's shower running. She continued to lie in bed, but then heard two gunshots. She ran to her parent’s bedroom and found that their door was closed. She did not open the door, but rather called for her mother who did not answer. Frightened, she ran out of the house and began screaming for help.
The Story ChangesHer story of what happened would change several times throughout the investigation. Sometimes she said her parent’s door was slightly opened and other times she said her door was closed, but not her parent’s door.
Based on the forensic evidence found in the hall and in Sarah’s bedroom, both her door and her parent’s door would have to have been opened.
Sarah also admitted that the pink robe was hers, but denied knowing anything about how it ended up in the trash. When first asked about the robe her first response was to say that she did not kill her parents, which investigators found odd. She said she thought the killer was a maid who had been recently fired by the Johnsons for stealing.
The Murder WeaponThe owner of the rifle used to kill the Johnsons belonged to Mel Speegle, who was renting a garage apartment in a guesthouse located on the Johnson’s property. He was away over the Labor Day weekend and had not yet returned home on the day of the murders. When questioned, he told police that the rifle was kept in an unlocked closet in his apartment.
Infatuation and ObsessionSarah Johnson was described by neighbors and friends as a sweet girl who enjoyed playing volleyball. But another Sarah had emerged over the summer months. One that seemed infatuated and obsessed with her 19-year-old boyfriend Bruno Santos Dominguez.
Sarah and Dominguez had been dating for three months prior to the murder of her parents. The Johnsons did not approve of the relationship because Dominguez was 19 and an undocumented Mexican immigrant. He also had a reputation for being involved in drugs.
Close friends of Sarah’s said that a few days prior to the Johnson’s murder, Sarah showed them a ring and told them that she and Dominguez were engaged. They also said that Sarah often lied so they did not completely buy into what Sarah was saying about her engagement.
Days Leading up to the MurderOn August 29, Sarah told her parents that she was spending the night with friends, but instead she spent the night with Dominguez. When her parents found out, her father went to look for her the next day and found her with Bruno at his family’s apartment.
Sarah and her parents argued and Sarah told them about her engagement. Diane was very upset and said that she was going to go to the authorities and report Dominguez for statutory rape. If nothing else, she hoped to have him deported.
They also grounded Sarah for the rest of the Labor Day weekend and took her car keys. During the following days Sarah, who had a key to Speegle’s apartment, was in and out of the guesthouse for various reasons.
Both Diane and Sarah called Matt Johnson, who was away at college, on the night before the murders. Matt said his mother cried about Sarah's relationship with Dominguez and expressed how embarrassed she felt by Sarah's actions.
Uncharacteristically, Sarah seemed to accept her parent's punishment, and told Matt that she knew what they were up to. Matt did not like how the comment sounded and almost called his mother back, but decided not to because it was so late. The next day the Johnsons were dead.
DNA EvidenceDNA testing showed that there was blood and tissue belonging to Diane on Sarah’s pink robe, along with DNA that matched Sarah. Gunshot residue was found on the leather glove and Sarah’s DNA was found inside of the latex glove. Diane’s DNA was also found in blood that was on the socks Sarah was wearing on the morning her parents were killed.
Sarah Johnson is ArrestedOn October 29, 2003, Sarah Johnson was arrested and charged as an adult on two counts of first-degree murder to which she pleaded not guilty.
Nancy Grace Helped ProsecutorsOne of the big problems that the prosecution had with a major piece of evidence had to do with the pattern of blood splatters found on the pink robe. Most of the blood was on the left sleeve and the back of the robe. If Sarah put the robe on before shooting her parents, how did so much blood get on the back?
While the prosecution was struggling to put together a viable explanation for the location of the blood on the robe, Sarah's defense lawyer, Bob Pangburn happened to appear as a guest on the Nancy Grace "Current Affairs" program.
Nancy Grace asked Pangburn about the blood on the robe and he said it showed possible contamination of evidence and that it actually could help exonerate Sarah Johnson.
Nancy Grace offered another explanation. She suggested that if Sarah wanted to protect her body and clothing from blood splatter, that she could have put the robe on backwards. Doing that would act as a shield and the blood would then end up on the back of the robe.
Rod Englert and other members of the prosecution team happened to be watching the program and Grace's theory provided them with a reasonable scenario that would result in the blood patterns that were on the robe.
Court TestimonyDuring the trial there was a lot of testimony about Sarah Johnson’s inappropriate behavior and lack of emotions about the brutal murder of her parents. Neighbors and friends who offered comfort to Sarah on the day her parents were killed said that she was more concerned about seeing her boyfriend. She also did not seem traumatized, which would be expected if a teen went through the experience that she had inside the house when her parents were gunned down. At her parent's funeral she talked about wanting to go play volleyball that evening and any sadness that she displayed seemed superficial.
Witnesses also testified about the troubled relationship between Sarah and her mother, but many also added that it was not that unusual for a girl her age to fight with their mother. However, her half-brother, Matt Johnson, gave some of the most insightful testimony about Sarah, although it also proved to be some of the most damaging.
He described her as a drama queen and a good actor who had a propensity to lie. During part of his two-hour testimony, he said that the first thing Sarah told him when he arrived to their home after finding out his parent’s had been murdered, was that the police thought that she did it. He told her he thought Dominguez did it, which she vehemently denied. She said that Dominguez loved Alan Johnson like a father. Matt knew this was not true.
She also told him that at 2 a.m. on the night before the murders, that someone had been to the house. Her parents checked the yard to make sure no one was out there before they went back to bed. She had not provided this information to the police. Regardless Matt did not believe her, but did not challenge what she was saying.
In the weeks after the murders, Matt testified that he avoided asking his sister about the murders because he was afraid of what she might tell him.
The "No Blood, No Guilt" DefenseSome of the strongest points that Sarah’s defense team made during her trial had to do with the lack of biological matter found on Sarah or on her clothing. In fact, investigators found nothing in her hair, hands, or anywhere else. Experts testified that with Diane having been shot at such close range, it would be impossible for the shooter to avoid being sprayed with blood and tissue and yet none was found on Sarah who underwent two complete physical exams on the day of the murders.
Also, her fingerprints were not found on the bullets, rifle or the knives. There was however, one unidentified print found on the rifle.
The testimony of cellmates of Sarah's who testified about some of the damaging comments she made regarding the murders was challenged. One cellmate said that Sarah said the knives were placed on the bed in order to throw off the police and make it look like a gang-related shooting.
The defense fought to have the testimonies thrown out because the cellmates were adults and the law forbids incarcerated minors to be housed with adults. The judge did not agree, stating that if Sarah could be tried as an adult, she could be housed with adult prisoners.
The defense team also questioned Matt Johnson about the life insurance money he would get if Sarah was out of the picture, insinuating that he had a lot to gain if Sarah was found guilty.
The Verdict and SentencingThe jury deliberated for 11 hours before finding Sarah Johnson guilty on two counts of murder in the first degree.
She was sentenced to two fixed life prison terms, plus 15 years, without the possibility for parole. She was also fined $10,000, of which $5,000 was allocated to go to Matt Johnson.
AppealsEfforts for a new trial were turned down in 2011, however a hearing has been granted for November 2012, based on the possibility that new DNA and fingerprint technology that was not available during Sarah Johnson's trial could prove that she is innocent
Attorney Dennis Benjamin and the Idaho Innocence Project took on her case pro bono in 2011.
Deputy Attorney General Kenneth Jorgensen has said Benjamin's claims are "frivolous."
Johnson continues to maintain that she is innocent.