On November 9th, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments challenging the constitutionality of juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) sentences. In preparation for oral arguments, JLWOP: Faces & Cases will be an on-going series on The Foundry that will tell real stories about juvenile offenders who are currently serving LWOP sentences.
Defendant: Sarah Johnson (16)
Victims: Alan and Diane Johnson
Crimes: Two counts, first degree felony murder
Crime date: September 2, 2003 in Bellevue, Idaho
Using a hunting rifle, Sarah Johnson killed her parents after they grounded her for attempting to spend the night with her older boyfriend. She shot her sleeping mother in the head and her father as he stepped out of the shower.
Alan and Diana Johnson lived in the small town of Bellevue, Idaho. Alan was a co-owner of a successful landscaping company, and Diana worked for a financial firm. They had a son, a daughter, and a nice house on a spacious two-acre parcel of land.
Their daughter Sarah Johnson attended Wood River High School. She fell in love with 19-year-old Bruno Santos, a former high school classmate and illegal alien who had had brushes with the law and was rumored to be involved with illegal drugs.
One Friday, Johnson told her parents that she was going to spend the night at a friend’s house. Her mother called the friend’s house and discovered that Sarah was not there. The parents guessed that their daughter was most likely with Santos.
Alan Johnson drove over to Santos’s house and found his daughter there. He spoke with Santos’s mother and then drove his daughter home. He grounded her for the weekend.
Just after 6 a.m. on September 2, 2003, a few days after she had been grounded, Sarah Johnson entered her parents’ bedroom armed with a Winchester .264 Magnum rifle. Her father was in the shower, and her mother was still asleep. Johnson placed the end of the rifle on her mother’s head and pulled the trigger. She then walked toward the master bathroom and saw her father coming out of the shower. She shot him once through the chest at a distance of about three feet.
Alan fell to the floor and then stood and walked toward the side of the bed where his wife usually slept. He felt for her and then collapsed. Neighbors who heard the gunshots called 911. Sarah Johnson exited the house and ran down the street, screaming that someone had shot her parents.
While Sarah Johnson told police a number of different stories about what she witnessed the morning of the murders, the evidence against her was overwhelming. There had been no forced entry to the home. Crime scene officers found a pink robe in the trash, inside of which they found a leather glove and a latex glove. Tests of the robe revealed biological material from the defendant and her parents. Testing of the leather glove revealed gunshot residue, and Sarah Johnson’s DNA was found inside the latex glove. The matching leather glove was found in Sarah’s bedroom, and the rifle was found in the master bedroom. The Winchester rifle was usually stored in the family’s guest house, where Sarah had spent the weekend after being grounded.
According to prosecutors, Johnson committed the murders because she was fearful that her parents were going to turn in Santos for statutory rape and have him deported. There was additional evidence that the defendant murdered her parents to get their money so that she and Santos could go away together.
Charles D. Stimson is Senior Legal Fellow and Andrew M. Grossman is Senior Legal Policy Analyst in the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation.