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Johnson v. State

Supreme Court of Idaho

May 12, 2017

SARAH MARIE JOHNSON, Petitioner-Appellant,
v.
STATE OF IDAHO, Respondent.

         2017 Opinion No. 45

         Appeal from the District Court of the Fifth Judicial District, State of Idaho, Blaine County. Hon. G. Richard Bevan, District Judges.

         Order dismissing successive petition for post-conviction relief, affirmed.

          Nevin, Benjamin, McKay & Bartlett, LLP, Boise, for appellant. Dennis A. Benjamin argued.

          Hon. Lawrence G. Wasden, Idaho Attorney General Boise, for respondent. Jessica Lorello, Deputy Attorney General argued.

          BURDICK, Chief Justice.

         Sarah Johnson appeals from the Blaine County district court's order dismissing her successive petition for post-conviction relief. On appeal, Johnson argues: (1) the district court erred in denying her request under Idaho Code section 19-4902 for additional DNA testing; (2) that in light of Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012), and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016), the district court erred in dismissing her Eighth Amendment claim because as a minor, the imposition of two fixed life sentences is cruel and unusual punishment; and (3) this Court's decision in Murphy v. State, 156 Idaho 389, 327 P.3d 365 (2014), which holds that ineffective assistance of post-conviction counsel does not constitute a sufficient reason for filing a successive post-conviction petition, should be overturned. We affirm.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Alan and Diane Johnson were shot and killed in their home on September 2, 2003. Sarah Johnson (Johnson), the Johnsons' sixteen year old daughter, was home at the time of the shooting. Johnson consistently denied any involvement, but gave several different accounts of what she was doing, what she saw, and what she heard prior to and after the murders. However, in all accounts she fled the home either before hearing the second shot or immediately thereafter. After fleeing the house, she ran to a neighbors' house and the police were called. Johnson was ultimately charged with both murders.

         Police found a leather glove from a pair usually kept in Diane's SUV, Johnson's keys, including a key to the guesthouse, the magazine of a nine-millimeter handgun wrapped in a bandana, and two .264 caliber magnum shells in Johnson's bedroom. In a garbage can outside of the residence the police also found a latex glove, a leather glove (matching the one found in Johnson's bedroom), and a pink robe covered in blood that belonged to Johnson and had .25 automatic pistol ammunition in the pocket. Testing revealed that Johnson's DNA was present inside of the latex glove and that paint chips found inside of the robe matched paint on the shirt Johnson was wearing on the morning of the murders.

         The murder weapon, a .264 rifle, belonged to Mel Speegle, who was renting the Johnsons' guesthouse, but was out of town at the time of the murders. There were no prints on the rifle, scope, or ammunition that matched Johnson's. Speegle testified at trial that he kept the rifle in his closet, which was unlocked. Speegle also testified at trial that Johnson had access to the guesthouse, knew he would be gone the weekend before the murders, and knew that the rifle along with his other guns and ammunition were located in the closet. Johnson had a key to the guesthouse and had been in there several times including the days immediately preceding the murders. A physical examination of Johnson on the day of the murders revealed linear bruising on Johnson's left shoulder that would be consistent with gun recoil. Johnson testified that she got the bruising when she tripped over a coffee table at her boyfriend's house over the weekend.

         In 2005, after a lengthy trial, a jury found Johnson guilty of the murder of her parents. State v. Johnson (Johnson I), 145 Idaho 970, 972, 188 P.3d 912, 914 (2008). She was sentenced to two fixed-life terms of imprisonment with a fifteen-year gun enhancement. Id. Johnson's first direct appeal was dismissed for failure to timely file a notice of appeal. State v. Johnson (Johnson II), 156 Idaho 7, 10, 319 P.3d 491, 494 (2014). Johnson then filed a petition for post-conviction relief alleging, among other things, ineffective assistance of counsel for her attorney's failure to timely file her notice of appeal. Id. The district court found ineffective assistance of counsel for the failure to timely file the notice of appeal and re-entered the conviction of judgment. Id. Johnson then filed a timely notice of appeal, and the district court stayed proceedings on her remaining post-conviction claims pending resolution of the direct appeal. Id. On direct appeal, we affirmed the district court's judgment of conviction. Johnson I, 145 Idaho at 980, 188 P.3d at 922. Following resolution of her direct appeal, Johnson filed a second amended petition for post-conviction relief. Johnson II, 156 Idaho at 10, 319 P.3d at 494.

         In her second amended petition for post-conviction relief, Johnson claimed, among other things, that:

(1) her trial counsel was ineffective for failing to elicit testimony from Robert Kerchusky, the defense's fingerprint expert; (2) the unidentified prints on the murder weapon, its scope, and an insert from the box of ammunition were fresh; and (3) newly discovered evidence warranted a new trial. The newly discovered evidence claim was based on the discovery that Christopher Hill's fingerprints matched the previously unidentified prints on the murder weapon, its scope, and the ammunition.

Id. The district court held an evidentiary hearing on Johnson's claims and denied relief. Johnson appealed, and we affirmed. Id. at 13, 319 P.3d at 497. In regard to the newly discovered evidence, we noted that identifying the previously unidentified prints as Hill's did little to change the likelihood of Johnson's guilt and, in fact, due to Hill's credible testimony about why his prints were on the rifle, "[made] the fingerprint testimony even less valuable than it was at the time of the trial, when the defense could argue that a nameless third party handled the gun, the shells and removed the scope." Id.

         On April 9, 2012, with the help of pro bono counsel, Johnson filed a DNA and Successive Petition for Post-Conviction Relief (Successive Petition) and, almost two years later, on January 22, 2014, an Amended DNA and Successive Petition for Post-Conviction Relief (Amended Successive Petition). Following Johnson's filing of the Amended Successive Petition, the district court ordered the Successive Petition, the Amended Successive Petition, and an affidavit by Dr. Greg Hampikian supporting the Successive Petition to be filed "nunc pro tunc to April 9, 2012, in a separate case and assigned a separate case number." Johnson's allegations in her Second Amended Petition can largely be narrowed down to three issues: (1) a request for DNA testing under Idaho Code section 19-4902(b); (2) a claim under Miller and Montgomery that her two fixed life sentences violate the Eighth Amendment; and (3) an ineffective assistance of post-conviction counsel claim alleging numerous deficiencies.

         The State filed a motion for summary dismissal of Johnson's Amended Successive Petition, and the district court held a hearing on the State's motion. Following the hearing, the district court issued a written opinion in which it noted that Johnson conceded that the claims relating to ineffective assistance of post-conviction counsel were barred by Murphy. The court then discussed the remaining two issues-the request for DNA testing and the Eighth Amendment claim-and granted the State's motion for summary dismissal. Johnson timely appeals.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary disposition of a petition for post-conviction relief is appropriate if the applicant's evidence raises no genuine issue of material fact. On review of a dismissal of a post-conviction relief application without an evidentiary hearing, this Court will determine whether a genuine issue of fact exists based on the pleadings, depositions and admissions together with any affidavits on file and will liberally construe the facts and reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. A court is required to accept the petitioner's unrebutted allegations as true, but need not accept the petitioner's conclusions. When the alleged facts, even if true, would not entitle the applicant to relief, the trial court may dismiss the application without holding an evidentiary hearing. Allegations contained in the application are insufficient for the granting of relief when (1) they are clearly disproved by the record of the original proceedings, or (2) do not justify relief as a matter of law.

Kelly v. State, 149 Idaho 517, 521, 236 P.3d 1277, 1281 (2010) (quoting Charboneau v. State, 144 Idaho 900, 903, 174 P.3d 870, 873 (2007)).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Whether the district court erred in denying Johnson DNA testing under I.C. § 19-4902.

         Under Idaho Code section 19-4902, post-conviction testing of DNA is generally available to a petitioner when: (1) the evidence to be tested was not subject to the requested testing because the technology for the testing was not available at the time of the trial; (2) identity was an issue in the trial; (3) the evidence to be tested has been subject to a proper chain of custody; (4) the result of the testing has the scientific potential to produce new evidence that would show it is more probable than not that the petitioner is innocent; and (5) the testing method would likely produce admissible results under the Idaho Rules of Evidence. I.C. § 19-4902(b)-(e).

         Johnson is seeking to have two different categories of DNA samples tested. The first involves DNA samples that were tested, analyzed, and profiled at the time of the trial but were unmatched when run through law enforcement databases. Johnson wishes to re-run these samples through current law enforcement databases, which now include more DNA profiles with which to compare the samples.[1] The second category involves testing DNA samples, which due to their small size, were unable to be tested at the time of the trial. The district court denied post-conviction DNA testing on both categories of samples, ruling that the requested testing failed to meet the requirements of section 19-4902. Specifically, the district court found that: (1) Johnson's request to re-run the previously analyzed DNA samples through the expanded law enforcement database did not involve technology that was not available at the time of the trial; and (2) although the DNA samples that were too small to be tested previously did involve new technology, the testing did not have the scientific potential to produce new evidence that would show it is was more probable than not that Johnson was innocent. Johnson appeals both findings, and we address each in turn.

1. Whether Johnson's request to re-run previously analyzed and tested DNA samples through current law enforcement databases constitutes a request for testing that was not conducted at trial "because the technology for the testing was not available at the time of trial, " as required under Idaho Code section 19-4902(b).
Idaho Code section 19-4902(b) states:
A petitioner may, at any time, file a petition before the trial court that entered the judgment of conviction in his or her case for the performance of fingerprint or forensic deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) testing on evidence that was secured in relation to the trial which resulted in his or her conviction but which was not subject to the testing that is now requested because the technology for the testing was not available at the time of trial.

I.C. § 19-4902(b) (emphasis added). Thus, under the statute, post-conviction DNA testing is only available if the requested testing relies on technology that was not available at the time of the original trial. Johnson argues that her request to compare a number of unidentified but already analyzed and compiled DNA profiles with Christopher Hill's DNA profile and an updated DNA profile database satisfies this requirement.

         In support of her argument, Johnson points to a definition of technology found in Merriam-Webster's online dictionary defining technology as "a manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge <new technologies for information storage>."[2] Focusing on the knowledge aspect of the definition of technology, Johnson argues that the now available DNA profile of Christopher Hill and additional DNA profiles in the CODIS database are new knowledge, i.e., technologies, that were not available at the time of trial. Thus, Johnson asserts that her request to compare unmatched and unidentified DNA samples that were collected and profiled at the time of trial to these newly available profiles encompasses technology that was not available at the time of trial. Johnson further asserts this definition of technology is supported by the legislative purpose of section 19-4902.

         When interpreting the meaning of a word in a statute, this Court exercises free review. State v. Lee, 153 Idaho 559, 561, 286 P.3d 537, 539 (2012). In the absence of a statutory definition, "[t]he language of a statute should be given its plain, usual and ordinary meaning." Albee v. Judy, 136 Idaho 226, 231, 31 P.3d 248, 253 (2001). To ascertain the ordinary meaning of an undefined term in a statute, this Court often turns to dictionary definitions of the term. E.g., Marek v. Hecla, Ltd., 161 Idaho 211, ___, 384 P.3d 975, 980 (2016); Arnold v. City of Stanley, 158 Idaho 218, 221, 345 P.3d 1008, 1011 (2015).

         Technology, as pointed out by Johnson, is defined as: "a manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge." Thus, broken down, technology is broadly the "manner of accomplishing a task" and particularly "the manner of accomplishing a task using technical processes, methods or knowledge." In both the broader and particular senses of the word, the focus is on the "manner of accomplishing a task." But in the particular meaning, the manner of accomplishing the task is narrowed to the technical aspects of accomplishing the task, i.e., the "nuts and bolts" of how the task is accomplished. Johnson, however, suggests that technology can be defined by the simple increase of knowledge, i.e., that increased knowledge or data standing alone is technology. However, this interpretation overlooks the primary definition of technology, which requires not an increase or change in knowledge, but rather the technical or practical application of that knowledge to a manner of accomplishing a task to produce a new capability.[3] More simply, technology encompasses technical knowledge, which is the knowledge relied on to change the "nuts and bolts" of how a task is accomplished. Rather than the simple increase or availability of knowledge, it is the application of knowledge to a specific process or method of accomplishing a task that is included in the definition of technology.

         Here, the availability of Christopher Hill's DNA profile and the increase in DNA profiles in the CODIS database do not involve the application of technical knowledge to create a new DNA testing capability or technique that was not available at the time of trial. The mere fact that there may now be more DNA profiles available for comparison does not constitute technology in the plain and ordinary sense of the word. The district court was correct in finding that the simple availability of Hill's DNA and the general increase in DNA profiles with which to compare the unidentified DNA samples does not constitute "technology" that was not available at the time of Johnson's trial.[4] Accordingly, we affirm the district court's decision to deny "any requests in Johnson's Successive Petition seeking the comparison of previously tested but unidentified DNA samples with newly acquired profiles[.]"

2. Whether the district court erred in determining that testing on the previously untested DNA samples did not have the scientific potential to produce new, noncumulative evidence that would show it is more probable than not that Johnson is innocent.

         Under Idaho Code section 19-4902(e) a trial court "shall allow" DNA testing "upon a determination" that:

(1) The result of the testing has the scientific potential to produce new, noncumulative evidence that would show that it is more probable than not that the petitioner is innocent; and
(2) The testing method requested would likely produce admissible results under the Idaho rules of evidence.

I.C. § 19-4902(e)(1)-(2).

         There is no dispute the second requirement, that the testing method would produce admissible results, is met. This leaves only the first requirement for our review.

         After a hearing on Johnson's request for DNA testing, the district court concluded that the "possibility of identifying a third party DNA source from previously untestable samples will not make it more probable than not that Johnson is innocent ...


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