NH judge denies early parole for man fighting 30-year murder conviction

A New Hampshire man fighting his conviction in a 1988 murder will not face an early parole hearing after more than 30 years behind bars, a Supreme Court judge ruled Wednesday.

Jason E. Carroll, now 52, ​​was found guilty of second-degree murder and conspiracy to murder Sharon Johnson of Bow in 1992. Johnson, age 36, was seven months pregnant when she was found stabbed and strangled at a Bedford construction site.

Carroll has maintained his innocence, saying it was based on a false confession, and so have his attorneys at the New England Innocence Project questions his beliefs direct. A separate motion was at the center of Wednesday’s hearing in Manchester a state law which allows prisoners to lobby for early release once they have served two-thirds of their sentence.

Carroll’s attorney Cynthia Mousseau argued he was an “ideal candidate” for early parole, citing his good behavior in prison, his connections to the community and a psychologist’s assessment that he posed a low risk to others.

Superior Court Judge William Delker said he accepts that Carroll did positive things in prison and would pose little risk to the community if released. But he agreed with a prosecutor who argued that Carroll refuses to take responsibility for a brutal crime that devastated the victim’s family.

“To reward her with an early release in this context would be terrible news,” Delker said.

Separately, Carroll’s attorneys filed a petition on Tuesday, urging the court to have physical evidence from the crime scene, including blood found under Johnson’s fingernails, tested for DNA — something that was not done during the original investigation, when the DNA tests were still running his childhood. His attorneys say tests will exonerate Carroll.

If successful, the attempt would make legal history; No one has ever been exonerated after being convicted of murder in New Hampshire. But legal experts say overturning a final conviction is extremely difficult and generally requires significant new evidence or exposing government wrongdoing.

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Sharon Johnson’s daughter Melonie Eaton, right, and her cousin Thomas Eaton address the press at Hillsborough Superior Court North in Manchester on Wednesday November 16, 2022. They testified at an early parole hearing for Jason Carroll, the man convicted of taking part in Johnson’s 1988 murder.

A Goffstown native, Sharon Johnson was living in Bow at the time of her death and was working as an engineer with Digital Equipment Corp. in Amherst. Family and friends called her generous and hardworking and said she was eagerly expecting her second child.

“Anyone who has ever known my mother, even if it was just for a brief moment, would have absolutely nothing to say but kind and loving words,” her daughter Melonie Eaton said on Wednesday. “Sharon was the kind of person who would give her shirt off her back to a friend in need if it would help her.”

More than a year passed after Johnson’s killing 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 claimed Carroll and Pfaff, both aged 18 at the time, met Sharon Johnson under false pretenses in Manchester, forced her to drive to Bedford and then stabbed her to death while Ken Johnson looked on and taunted her.

Because there was no physical evidence connecting the three men to the crime, the state’s case hinged on confessions that Carroll and Pfaff gave to police. Both later recanted their statements, saying they were false and were from the case’s lead detective, Sgt. Roland Lamy.

Of the three, only Carroll was convicted. Pfaff was acquitted in a separate trial after his lawyers argued that his confession was unreliable and that the lead investigator’s credibility had been attacked. 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 Penitentiary.

The judge cited Carroll’s decision not to testify in Wednesday’s ruling.

“Your failure to take responsibility and cooperate when you had the opportunity meant your co-conspirators escaped justice for this brutal, brutal murder,” Delker said.

Carroll’s attorneys at the New England Innocence Project argue that the intense pressure police put on him during his interrogations and his youth created a forced environment at the time. They say he gave in and told the police what they wanted to hear.

Carroll was interrogated four times in as many days without a lawyer present. His mother — a Bedford police officer — joined in one of the interrogations and yelled at her son to confess.

Mousseau, his attorney, previously told NHPR that Carroll’s testimonies to police contained “blatant contradictions” with other evidence in the case. For example, she said, Carroll told police the murder weapon was his pocket knife, which had a blade about 2 inches in diameter, even though a stab wound in Johnson’s back was 4 inches deep.

There were also contradictions between Carroll’s confession and Pfaff’s confession: they described the murder weapon differently, justified Ken Johnson’s alleged motive differently, and gave different statements as to when and how they were paid. Carroll also incorrectly described Johnson as having a beard and was unable to identify him in a series of photos.

During Carroll’s original trials, state attorneys dismissed these inconsistencies as minor. They argued that Carroll knew details that police had deliberately withheld from the public, including that Sharon Johnson had been stabbed in the back, which they said corroborated his confession.

During Wednesday’s hearing, several family members of Sharon Johnson spoke about how devastating it was to lose her and her unborn child. They said they remain convinced of Carroll’s guilt and do not want to see his release.

Eaton, who was 14 at the time of the murder, said her mother never saw her get her driver’s license, graduate from high school, fall in love and have children of her own.

“She was gone for so many moments that I wish she were in my life,” she said.

In a brief statement early in the hearing, Carroll told the victim’s family he regretted their loss but said he did not cause it.

“I really wish I could give you closure and peace,” he said. “But I can not. I can’t tell you what happened there because I wasn’t there. I was a young child forced 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 into my coerced and false testimony were not dropped.”

Mousseau noted Carroll’s minimal disciplinary history in prison — which included no reports of violence — and the various educational programs he attended. A correctional officer who supervised Carroll for more than 20 years in the New Hampshire State Penitentiary also testified on his behalf from two men who were formerly incarcerated with Carroll. They called him a mentor who helped them and other young men behave positively.

Carroll’s sister, Jackie Carroll-Hughes, described him as the older brother who looked after his younger siblings while their parents were at work. She watched as the family “broke up” after his arrest.

“Siblings started going in the wrong direction in life,” she said. “And it was Jason who did everything he could behind the prison wall to get us back on track.”

Carroll’s request for DNA testing remains pending. His lawyers said they could eventually file a habeas corpus petition to try to prove his innocence.

NHPRs Jason moon contributed reporting.

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