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In reversal, NH drops opposition to DNA testing in Jason Carroll case

Jason Carroll, center, who says he was wrongfully convicted of the 1988 murder of Sharon Johnson, appeared in Hillsborough Superior Court North in Manchester on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022.
Gaby Lozada / NHPR
Jason Carroll, center, who says he was wrongfully convicted of the 1988 murder of Sharon Johnson, appeared in Hillsborough Superior Court North in Manchester on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022.

More than 17 months after attempting to block a request for DNA testing in the case of a man who claims he was wrongfully convicted of murder, prosecutors for the state of New Hampshire filed a motion Thursday reversing course.

The surprise move comes a little more than a week before a four-day hearing on the issue was scheduled in Hillsborough North Superior Court.

The motion, filed by Assistant Attorney General Charles Bucca, gives room for the state to later contest whether any DNA results exonerate Carroll.

“The State reserves the right to challenge the import or significance of any analysis, for any reasons, including but not limited to potential contamination from the handling of the evidence by uninvolved persons prior to its collection,” the motion reads.

Bucca writes the state arrived at its new position “upon a review of the evidentiary items and reports of the expert witnesses,” but does not fully explain why, after nearly a year-and-a-half, the state is dropping its objections now.

In the state’s initial objection to DNA testing in November 2022, Bucca wrote “there is no scenario where testing these items will exonerate the defendant.”

The request for DNA testing still needs final approval from Judge William Delker.

If DNA test results exonerate Carroll, it would make legal history in the state. No one has been exonerated for a murder conviction in New Hampshire.

Lawyers with the New England Innocence Project filed the petition for post-conviction DNA testing in November 2022 on behalf of Jason E. Carroll. Carroll, 53, was convicted of the 1988 murder of Sharon Johnson. Two alleged co-conspirators, Tony Pfaff and Sharon’s husband Ken Johnson, were not convicted.

Carroll, who is still incarcerated, claims he was convicted on the basis of a false confession he gave when he was 19 years old. Carroll’s case is the subject of the second season of New Hampshire Public Radio’s “Bear Brook” podcast.

The contents of a box of newly rediscovered evidence in the Jason Carroll case are laid out on a table in a New Hampshire courtroom in October 2022. The contents include documents, a photo of Sharon Johnson, and a videotape of the crime scene where her body was discovered.
Jason Moon/NHPR
A box of evidence from Jason Carroll's trial was rediscovered in a courthouse basement in October 2022. Shown here are some of the contents of the box, including documents, a photo of Sharon Johnson, videotape of the Bedford crime scene, and envelopes containing fingernail clippings from Johnson's hands.

Carroll is seeking to test several pieces of evidence from the original investigation into Johnson’s murder, including blood found beneath Johnson’s fingernails that may belong to her attacker, several knives collected in evidence, and a stained white long sleeve shirt found near the crime scene.

Johnson, 36, was found stabbed and strangled to death in a rural construction site in Bedford in 1988.

An engineer and mother seven months pregnant with her second child, Johnson was loved and admired by friends and family. Prosecutors allege she was the victim of a murder-for-hire plot orchestrated by her husband, Ken Johnson, and carried out with the help of two then-teenagers: Tony Pfaff and Jason Carroll.

When he was 19 years old, Carroll gave a series of conflicting statements to state police and his own mother, then a Bedford police officer, during more than 13 hours of interrogation over four days. Carroll ultimately said he stabbed Sharon Johnson for $5,000 paid by her husband. Carroll recanted his confession shortly thereafter and pled not guilty.

Police interrogated Carroll without a defense attorney

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present and with methods now known to increase the likelihood of false confessions, including repeatedly asserting certainty in a suspect’s guilt, and implying leniency in return for a confession.

Pfaff, who was also 19 at the time, similarly confessed after a long interrogation. He also recanted and pled not guilty.

Prosecutors dropped all charges against Ken Johnson in 1991, citing a lack of evidence. Pfaff was found not guilty after a 16-day trial the same year. Carroll was convicted of second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder after two trials and sentenced to 46 years to life in 1992.

DNA technology was in its infancy during the investigation and trials. None of the items Carroll is now seeking to test have been examined for DNA before.

Jason Moon is a senior reporter and producer on the Document team. He has created longform narrative podcast series on topics ranging from unsolved murders, to presidential elections, to secret lists of police officers.

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