Idaho man appeals murder conviction to high court

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Idaho Supreme Court is considering whether a man convicted of two murders in southern Idaho should be allowed to make new arguments based on what he claims is newly discovered evidence in the case.

Robert Terry Johnson was charged with the murders of Connie Allen and Ricky Lee Mangum in Gooding County in 1993 along with a co-defendant, Thomas Robert Petersen.

Both men pleaded guilty the following year. But Johnson now contends he was never told that Petersen gave a recorded confession to police, and during the confession Petersen took full responsibility for the murders and said Johnson didn't voluntarily participate in the crimes. Johnson maintains that if he'd known about that evidence, he would have taken his chances at trial instead of pleading guilty.

But attorneys for the state — and judges in a lower court — say Johnson waited too long to make those claims.

Johnson's attorney, Erik Lehtinen with the state appellate public defender's office, told the Idaho Supreme Court justices Monday that defendants should be given a year to file successive post-conviction relief petitions like Johnson's.

Once they're in prison, most defendants don't have access to attorneys and are essentially left to their own devices if they want to file a petition or appeal, Lehtinen noted, and so it makes sense to give them a longer period of time to get that done.

The evidence itself should also be given due consideration by the court, Lehtinen said.

"We've got a situation where not only was he not told that there was certain evidence being withheld, but he was led to believe that all the information had been disclosed," Lehtinen said. "Mr. Johnson based his plea on that false understanding presented by the state."

According to court documents, Johnson said he didn't know about Petersen's interview with police until sometime in early 2009, when he obtained a handwritten statement from Petersen. The exact date he got the statement isn't clear, but he filed his petition with the court on July 29 of that year.

Assuming that "early 2009" means Jan. 1, that means Johnson would have waited more than 200 days to file the petition, said Idaho Deputy Attorney General Kenneth Jorgensen.

"Successive petitions have to be filed in a reasonable time," Jorgensen said. "This court has reaffirmed multiple times the reasonable time standard."

Jorgensen also took issue with the new evidence Johnson contends he has, saying the state doesn't believe it would meet the legal standard to justify overturning a conviction anyway.

The high court took the matter under advisement. The justices didn't say when they would issue a written ruling in the case.