N.H. judge denies early parole for man fighting 30-year-old murder conviction
A New Hampshire man who is fighting his conviction for a 1988 murder will not get an early parole hearing after more than 30 years behind bars, a superior court judge ruled Wednesday.
Jason E. Carroll, now 52, was found guilty in 1992 of second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder in the killing of Sharon Johnson of Bow. Johnson, age 36, was seven months pregnant when she was found stabbed and strangled at a construction site in Bedford.
Carroll has maintained his innocence, saying it was based on a false confession, and his lawyers at the New England Innocence Project are alsochallenging his conviction directly. The focus of Wednesday’s hearing in Manchester was a separate request under a state law that allows prisoners to make their case for early release once they’ve served two-thirds of their sentence.
Carroll’s attorney Cynthia Mousseau argued he was an “ideal candidate” for early parole, pointing to his good behavior in prison, ties to the community, and a psychologist’s assessment that he is a low risk to others.
Superior Court Judge William Delker said he accepted that Carroll has done positive things in prison and would pose little risk to the community if released. But he agreed with an attorney for the state, who argued Carroll refuses to take responsibility for a brutal crime that devastated the victim’s family.
“To reward you with early release in the context of that background would send a terrible message,” Delker said.
Separately, Carroll’s lawyers filed a petition Tuesday asking the court to allow physical evidence from the crime scene, including blood found under Johnson’s fingernails, to be tested for DNA — something that wasn’t done during the original investigation, when DNA testing was still in its infancy. His attorneys say testing will exonerate Carroll.
If successful, the effort would make legal history; no one has ever been exonerated after being convicted for murder in New Hampshire. But legal experts say overturning a settled conviction is extremely difficult, generally requiring significant new evidence or uncovering government misconduct.
A Goffstown native, Sharon Johnson lived in Bow at the time of her death and worked as an engineer at Digital Equipment Corp. in Amherst. Family and friends called her generous and hard-working, and said she was eagerly awaiting her second child.
“Any person who ever knew my mother, even if it was a brief moment, would have absolutely nothing but kind and loving words to say,” her daughter, Melonie Eaton, said Wednesday. “Sharon was the type of person who would give a friend in need the shirt off her back if it would help.”
More than a year passed after Johnson’s murder before authorities announced they had arrested three men. Police accused Johnson’s husband, Kenneth Johnson, of paying Carroll and an acquaintance named Tony Pfaff to help him murder his wife.
Detectives alleged Carroll and Pfaff, who were both 18 at the time, met Sharon Johnson in Manchester under false pretenses, forced her to drive to Bedford and then stabbed her as Ken Johnson looked on, taunting her.
With no physical evidence linking the three men to the crime, the state’s case hinged on confessions Carroll and Pfaff gave to police. Both of them later recanted their statements, saying they were false and had been coerced by the lead detective on the case, Sgt. Roland Lamy.
Of the three, only Carroll was convicted. Pfaff was acquitted in a separate trial, after his lawyers argued his confession was unreliable and attacked the credibility of the lead investigator. Prosecutors dropped the charges against Ken Johnson for lack of evidence because Carroll and Pfaff refused to testify against him. Carroll was sentenced to 46 years to life in New Hampshire State Prison.
The judge cited Carroll’s decision not to testify in his decision Wednesday.
“Your failure to accept responsibility and to cooperate when you had the opportunity to do so meant that your co-conspirators have escaped justice for this brutal, brutal murder,” Delker said.
Carroll’s lawyers at the New England Innocence Project argue the intense pressure police put on him during his interrogations and his youth at the time created a coercive environment. They say he gave in and told the police what they wanted to hear.
Carroll was questioned four times in as many days without a lawyer present. His mother — a Bedford police officer — joined one of the interrogations, screaming at her son to confess.
Mousseau, his attorney, previously told NHPR that Carroll’s statements to police contained “glaring inconsistencies'' with other evidence in the case. For example, she said, Carroll told police the murder weapon was his pocketknife, which had a blade of about 2 inches, though a stab wound in Johnson’s back was 4 inches deep.
There were also inconsistencies between Carroll’s confession and Pfaff’s: They described the murder weapon differently, gave different reasons for Ken Johnson’s alleged motive and offered divergent accounts of when and how they got paid. Carroll also incorrectly described Johnson as having a beard and couldn’t identify him in a photo array.
During Carroll’s original trials, lawyers for the state dismissed those inconsistencies as minor. They argued Carroll knew details that police had deliberately withheld from the public, including the fact that Sharon Johnson had been stabbed in the back, which they said corroborated his confession.
During Wednesday’s hearing, several of Sharon Johnson’s family members spoke about how devastating it was to lose her and her unborn child. They said they remained convinced of Carroll’s guilt and did not want to see him released.
Eaton, who was 14 at the time of the murder, said her mother never got to see her get her driver’s license, graduate high school, fall in love, and have children of her own.
“She wasn't there for so many moments I wish she was in my life,” she said.
In a brief statement earlier in the hearing, Carroll told the victim’s family he was sorry for their loss, but said he had not caused it.
“I truly wish I could give you closure and peace,” he said. “But I can’t. I can’t tell you what happened there because I wasn’t there. I was a young kid, pressured into a coerced and false confession. I’m sorry for that.”
He added, “I often wonder if the real perpetrator would be caught if the investigation didn’t end because of my coerced and false statement.”
Mousseau noted Carroll’s minimal disciplinary history in prison — which included no reports of violence — and the various educational programs he has participated in. A corrections officer who supervised Carroll for more than 20 years at the New Hampshire State Prison testified on his behalf, as did two men who were formerly incarcerated with Carroll. They called him a mentor who helped steer them and other young men toward positive behaviors.
Carroll’s sister, Jackie Carroll-Hughes, described him as the older brother who looked after his younger siblings while their parents worked. She watched the family “fall apart” after his arrest.
“Siblings started going in the wrong direction in life,” she said. “And it was Jason that did all that he could behind the prison wall to get us back on track.”
Carroll’s request for DNA testing remains pending. His lawyers have said they could eventually file a habeas corpus petition to try to prove his innocence.
NHPR’s Jason Moon contributed reporting.
Paul Cuno-Booth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.