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Expert: Daughter's DNA found on evidence at slain parents' home

Emanuella Grinberg
Court TV

DNA analyst Cynthia Hall testified about evidence found outside the home of Alan and Diane Johnson.
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BOISE, Idaho (Court TV) -- Items collected from the garbage of a murdered Idaho couple showed traces of DNA from the couple's 18-year-old daughter, an expert testified Thursday in the teenager's murder trial.

In a garbage can outside the home of Alan and Diane Johnson, detectives found a latex glove, a left-handed leather glove, and a blood-spattered pink bathrobe belonging to their daughter, Sarah Johnson, who was 16 at the time.

"The DNA profile obtained from the latex glove matched the profile obtained from the blood sample said to belong to Sarah Johnson," DNA analyst Cynthia Hall of the Idaho State Police testified.

Hall also matched blood on the bathrobe and DNA samples found on the brown leather glove to Sarah's mother, Diane, she testified. Sarah has acknowledged the bathrobe was hers.

Hall also testified that blood found on the bottom of wool socks collected from Sarah on the day of the shootings, Sept. 2, 2003, also matched Diane Johnson's DNA.

Blaine County prosecutors contend Sarah killed her parents, who disapproved of her relationship with a 19-year-old Mexican immigrant, after her father threatened to report him to police if he continued seeing their daughter.

The police analyst said she collected DNA samples from Sarah, Alan and Diane Johnson, as well as Sarah's boyfriend, Bruno Santos, and a former housekeeper whom Sarah implicated early in the investigation. Hall was able to exclude Santos and the housekeeper, Janet Sylten, from the evidence test results, she said.

Defense lawyer Mark Rader challenged the implications of Hall's findings.

"Alan, Diane and Sarah Johnson lived in the same house. Wouldn't you expect to find their DNA mixed everywhere throughout the house?" Rader said. Hall agreed.

Police also found two live cartridges in Sarah's room containing her mother's DNA. Detectives identified the murder weapon, a .264 Winchester Magnum rifle, as belonging to the Johnsons' guesthouse tenant, who was eventually dismissed as a potential suspect.

Prosecutors say Sarah gained access to the gun while staying in the guesthouse the weekend before the shootings. A trace evidence examiner also testified that gunshot residue was found on the right sleeve of Sarah's pink bathrobe.

Previous forensic testimony from a fingerprint analyst and firearms experts failed to produce direct evidence linking Sarah to the murder weapon or the crime scene.

Family feuds

Sarah Johnson

The defendant struggled to remain composed during the testimony of an uncle and a family friend Thursday. It was a rare display of emotion since Judge Barry Wood admonished her for outbursts earlier in the week.

James Vavold testified he was staying the weekend with his wife, Linda, in the Johnson home on the morning Sarah's parents discovered their 16-year-old daughter had lied to them about her whereabouts.

"He was completely disgusted, as anyone would do when they find out their kid is doing something stupid," the elderly man said of Alan Johnson, his brother-in-law of 15 years.

Vavold said he accompanied Alan Johnson to the Balmoral housing projects where Santos lived with his mother, sister and brother-in-law. They found Sarah there.

"She looked at me sort of surprised, like she was embarrassed to have her uncle see her in that situation," Vavold testified, as Sarah shifted in her seat, biting her lip.

The Johnson household seemed calm the rest of the weekend, he testified. The couple was murdered the following Tuesday.

After the killings, Sarah went to live with the Vavolds until she was arrested on October 29, 2003.

Prosecutors have said that Sarah killed her parents so she could collect money to start a life with Santos. When asked if Sarah had ever talked about insurance money, Vavold replied, "Her only concern was that [her brother] was getting everything and she's not getting anything."

He also noted that she talked about her parents as if they were still alive.

"You're not saying she ever admitted to you she killed her parents?" defense attorney Bob Pangburn asked during cross-examination.

"She said, 'I'm sorry to put you guys through this,'" Vavold repeated.

"So because she said, 'Sorry to put you through this,' the jury should believe she killed her parents?" Pangburn asked before the judge stopped the line of questioning.

A short engagement

In statements to police before her arrest, Sarah denied being engaged to Santos, but her longtime friend told the jury otherwise Thursday.

Megan Sowersby testified that Santos had proposed to Sarah at a dinner for her volleyball team. "She said her and Bruno were going to go to Boise to pick out engagement rings," said the 17-year-old, prompting the defendant to roll her eyes.

Megan also testified about Sarah's behavior after the murders.

"On the day of the murders, when she was hugging her grandmother Pat, she mouthed to me to go check if Bruno was okay," she said.

She also said Sarah told her Bruno had been cleared as a potential suspect by DNA evidence one day after the murders.

"Is Sarah known for being sweet and nice?" Thomas asked her.

"Yes," Megan said, eliciting a smile from the defendant.

"Is she also known to stretch the truth?" asked the prosecutor.

"Yes," the witness replied, and Sarah's smile disappeared.

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