U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett has overturned the death sentence of a Forest City woman accused of helping her drug-dealing boyfriend kill 5 people in 1993.
Bennett, who originally imposed death sentences on both Angela Johnson and her boyfriend, Dustin Honken, in 2004 and 2005, issued a 448-page ruling Thursday in which he set aside the death sentences based on mistakes made by Johnson’s lawyers during trial.
Federal prosecutors now have 60 days to protest the decision.
Bennett’s ruling notes that “the relief I am granting here is not about the case that jurors heard, or about the appropriateness of their ruling…. but about the case that the jurors did not but should have heard, but for trial counsel’s woefully unconstitutional performance.”
Johnson was convicted in 2005 for the the drug-related slayings of 3 adults and 2 children in northern Iowa. She was sentenced to death in 4 of the killings and given a life sentence for the 5th. The victims included 2 male suspected police informants, and an adult female and her 2 children. The victims’ bodies were found in shallow graves in 2000.
Bennett’s ruling was made in a 2009 lawsuit filed by Johnson who alleging that she was incompetent and had had ineffective lawyers. Court papers say Bennett granted “only four of the 65 grounds that she asserted.”
Johnson’s attorneys also argued she was tried while she was incompetent, in violation of her constitutional rights. They say she suffered from brain damage, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and methamphetamine addiction.
The Supreme Court declared capital punishment unconstitutional in 1972, but 4 years later cleared the way for executions to resume. Johnson was the 1st woman sentenced to death after the federal government began seeking capital punishment in 1988.
Iowa does not have a death penalty, but Johnson and Honken were allowed to face execution because the charges were filed in federal court.
(source: Des Moines Register)