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Tigard death row inmate's sentence removed

OatneyA Tigard man on death row had his sentence thrown out last week, 17 years after he was convicted of raping and murdering a Tualatin woman.

Billy Lee Oatney, 53, has been on Oregon’s death row since 1998. He was convicted of eight counts of aggravated murder for the 1996 death of Susi Larsen, an acquaintance of Oatney’s who had come to him to make jewelry for her wedding.

The Oregon Court of Appeals ruled on Dec. 9 that Oatney’s attorney should have done more in his defense and threw out his death sentence, saying that Washington County prosecutors will have to decide whether they want to try him again.

Larsen disappeared in August 1996. Her family told police that she had gone to meet Oatney on the day she went missing. She had planned to ask him to make some jewelry for her upcoming wedding, but Oatney claimed he hadn’t seen her for weeks.

Oatney’s alleged accomplice in Larsen’s death, Willford Johnston, was arrested a few days later on an outstanding warrant.

In September 1996, Larsen’s body was found in Champoeg State Park outside of Newberg. She was buried on what would have been her wedding day.

A question of immunity

Prosecutors said that they recorded phone conversations between Oatney and Johnston talking about Larsen’s death in code, using terms like getting rid of “camping stuff” and having a “garage sale.”

Tualatin Police suspected Oatney of Larsen’s death and spoke with him several times over the course of their investigation.

At one interview, in October 1996, Oatney agreed to come clean about what happened in exchange for immunity.

Prosecutors agreed, saying that they would not use Oatney’s testimony against him and wouldn’t use any evidence they gathered as a result of Oatney’s testimony.

Oatney said that Johnston killed Larsen in Oatney’s apartment while he was at a nearby bar.

Oatney claimed he didn’t learn about her murder until the following day, and only agreed to help clean up the apartment and dispose of Larsen’s belongings because he was afraid of being implicated.

Prosecutors played a portion of his statement to Johnston. Prosecutors said that when Johnston heard Oatney’s statement, he “turned beet red, clenched and shook his fists,” and then said that Oatney had committed the crime.

Johnston testified that he had been staying with Oatney at the time of Larsen’s death. He said that Oatney claimed to have a date with her, then brought her back to the apartment later that evening.

Johnston said he was in another room when he heard Oatney use a stun gun on her. Entering the living room, he found Larsen on the floor, with Oatney holding a stun gun to her neck.

Johnston said he helped Oatney tie her up. The pair cut off her clothes and sexually assaulted her.

Johnston testified that they forced Larsen to give them her bank card and said that he left the apartment to steal Larsen’s money from an ATM.

When he returned, he said that Oatney was trying unsuccessfully to kill Larsen. He said he helped Oatney hold a plastic bag over her head until she stopped breathing.

Both men were charged with her murder. Johnston was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Conviction hinged on Johnston

In his appeal, Oatney argued that Johnston’s testimony came as a direct result of his immunized statements. Johnston had refused to cooperate with investigators about Larsen’s case prior to Oatney’s statement, but changed his tune after hearing Oatney’s version of events. He argued that those statements were used in violation of the immunity promised by the district attorney’s office.

In his appeal, he said that his lawyer failed to see the correlation between his statement and Johnston’s until it was too late, and should have fought to have Johnston’s statements excluded from the trial.

Appeals Court Judge Albin W. Norblad agreed.

“The undisputed evidence is that Johnston made his Oct. 23 statement to the police because of (Oatney’s) statement,” Norblad wrote on Dec. 9. “Thus, that statement and his immediately subsequent statements, made over the course of the next two days, are derived from (Oatney’s) statement, not from any independent source.”

The prosecution’s case against Oatney hinged on Johnston’s testimony. Outside of that, there was no direct evidence that Oatney had participated in any sexual assault and murder, Oatney said.

Responding to Oatney’s appeal, the state argued that the immunity only applied to physical evidence investigators found as a result of his statement.

Norblad disagreed.

“We disagree with (the state’s) argument that the agreement barred the prosecution from using only derivative physical evidence, not evidence from follow-up interviews,” Norblad said.

Norblad said that more should have been done by Oatney’s attorneys.

“At a minimum ... any reasonable trial attorney would have recognized that the agreement was susceptible to argument about whether Johnston’s statements and testimony were covered,” Norblad said. “We also note that it is obvious ... that, as a factual matter, Johnston’s statements and testimony derived from petitioner’s immunized statement. Under those circumstances, and given the high stakes, namely, possible exclusion of critical state’s evidence in a death penalty case, any reasonable counsel would have raised the issue and argued that the agreement applied to Johnston’s statements.”

Oatney’s case now goes back to Washington County Circuit Court for reconsideration.