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Death row inmate will get new trial

Martin Allen Johnson was convicted of killing teen Heather Fraser


by: FILE PHOTO - Heather Fraser's body was found in Warrenton in 1998. An Aloha man is on death row after being convicted of her murder in 2001. A Marion County judge has ruled that he deserves a new trial after his defense attorneys failed to investigate whether Fraser overdosed on drugs.An Aloha man sentenced to death for raping and killing a Metzger teenager is getting another day in court.

It has been nearly 15 years since the body of Heather Fraser washed up on a beach in Warrenton, but last month a Marion County judge ruled that 56-year-old Martin Allen Johnson will have his case retried. Click here to read the judge's ruling

Marion County Circuit Judge Don Dickey ruled Jan. 22 that Johnson did not receive a proper defense during his 2001 aggravated murder trial, where he was convicted of drugging, raping and strangling the 15-year-old girl and then throwing her body off the Astoria-Megler Bridge in the middle of the night.

Fraser’s body was found Feb. 24, 1998, a day after she was reported missing from her home on Southwest Taylors Ferry Road.

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Martin Allen Johnson, photo taken in 2008 in the Oregon State Penitentiary.No date has been set for Johnson’s new trial.

Since his conviction in 2001, Johnson has been incarcerated at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem.

He appealed his conviction in 2006 and was denied. However, in Johnson’s petition for post-conviction relief — a process defendants can use if their appeals have been denied — he raised a new challenge: that his lawyers failed in their due diligence while defending him.

Dickey ruled Johnson’s lawyers did not adequately defend the then-44-year-old Aloha man during his trial and Johnson should be given a new trial.

Johnson’s attorneys relied on a risky plan for his defense, arguing he should be acquitted not because he was innocent of the crime, but because the death did not occur in Washington County, where the case was tried.

“That defense was essentially: ‘(Johnson) killed Heather Fraser, but he did not kill her in the county alleged in the indictment,’” Dickey wrote in his 88-page ruling.

The odds of a jury letting a killer go free on such a minor technicality, Dickey wrote, were “unlikely in the extreme.”

No toxicology test

Dickey said his lawyers could have made a strong case that Johnson was not guilty, since it was possible Fraser overdosed on drugs.

Johnson claimed he found Fraser unconscious in his home and tried to resuscitate her. Believing her dead, he wrapped her body in a blanket, put her in the trunk of his car and drove to the coast, where he threw her body into the Columbia River.

Johnson’s lawyers relied on the testimony of an expert witness who claimed Fraser died of drowning, meaning she was alive when she was thrown into the river, ignoring Johnson’s claim that Fraser had died after injecting drugs.

His lawyers did not order a toxicology test on Fraser’s body to corroborate Johnson’s story, instead relying on the opinion she died in Clatsop County as their only defense.

Dickey wrote any reasonable defense attorney would have requested the report, especially if it allowed them to use a less risky strategy.

“Trial counsel should at least have attempted to discover further evidence of possible place and cause of death before committing to that defense,” Dickey wrote. “By failing to request a separate toxicologist, trial counsel relied upon their expert without further inquiry into facts of which they had been informed and which they had no separate reason to question as not true.”

A state medical examiner said Fraser died of strangulation, not overdose or drowning, and that there was not enough morphine in her system to cause her death, but there was enough morphine in Fraser’s system to knock her unconscious. In his post-conviction petition, Johnson argued that fact could be disputed and said Fraser, a known drug user, could have overdosed on the drugs.

Regardless, Dickey said, Johnson’s lawyers should have verified their client’s story before deciding to disregard it completely.

“By said acts, trial counsel proceeded in a partial vacuum of potential facts and theories of defense,” Dickey wrote. “Had trial counsel reasonably followed up upon (Johnson)’s evidence and simply requested and obtained a separate toxicology review, counsel reasonably would have either confirmed the current expert opinions, or alternatively the potential validity of (Johnson)’s statements as to the place — and cause — of death.”

The investigation

Johnson was accused of preying on several underage girls, meeting them through fake petitions to lower the drinking age. According to investigators, Johnson would befriend the girls, take them to nightclubs, provide them with alcohol and drugs and have sex with them.

During his trial, some of his victims testified that Johnson would slip drugs into their drinks to knock them out or put chemically soaked rags over their faces. They would wake to Johnson sexually assaulting them.

According to police, Johnson supplied Fraser with alcohol and drugs. A coroner later revealed that Fraser had engaged in sex with Johnson before her death.

Fraser had reportedly gone to Johnson’s home in Aloha on Feb. 23, 1998, to use the Internet. Her body was found early the next morning in the surf on a beach near Warrenton. A forensic pathologist concluded she was strangled.

Johnson immediately became a suspect in the case. He had been spotted driving south on Highway 30, a principal road between Warrenton and Portland, and had been stopped by police.

Johnson was interviewed by authorities, but cut the interview short. The next day he disappeared, stealing his brother’s car and credit cards. He wasn’t spotted again for almost a year until a segment aired on the TV series “America’s Most Wanted” in 1999, and Johnson was found living near Orlando, Fla.

During his disappearance, a bloodstain on Johnson’s car was later matched to Fraser’s DNA.

At the time of his arrest, Johnson was also wanted on a slew of other serious felony charges. In Multnomah County, he was wanted on one count of first-degree rape, one count of first-degree sex abuse, five counts of third-degree rape, three counts of third-degree sodomy and three counts of using a child in a display of sexually explicit conduct. He also faced charges in Clackamas County of third-degree rape and two counts of third-degree sex abuse. Those charges were related to three girls who were 15 at the time.

Jurors convicted Johnson of eight counts of aggravated murder, ruling that Johnson killed Fraser either in the process of abusing her or while trying to conceal his actions.

Jurors deliberated for only two hours before sentencing him to death.




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