Bemidji woman found guilty in murder of brother-in-law
After taking the stand in her own nearly two-week trial, Janelle Johnson was found guilty of second-degree murder
BEMIDJI — After a nearly two-week trial, a jury has found Janelle Johnson guilty of second-degree murder, more than two years after Jesse Farris was fatally shot outside his Bemidji home.
Following a two-day jury selection process, the trial began March 15, with opening statements. The jury began deliberation around 11 a.m. Tuesday, March 21, and returned the guilty verdict Thursday afternoon.
Johnson has been taken into custody, and a sentencing hearing is set for May 30. Earlier this week, she took the stand to tell her side of what took place on the night of Jesse Farris’ murder on Dec. 25, 2020.
Following the conclusion on Monday of the state’s case against Johnson, represented by Daniel Vlieger, the defense, represented by Jill Brisbois, chose not to call any additional witnesses.
However, Johnson chose to testify to share her recollection of the events that occurred that night involving herself, her husband, Austin Johnson, and her brother-in-law Jesse Farris.
Janelle Johnson explained that she and Farris had met when she was 12 years old and that she considered him family.
However, she noted that “there were some issues that occurred, and (the relationship) became indifferent,” then progressively worsened over the years, due to the alleged abuse between Farris and Johnson’s sister, Justina Farris.
Johnson testified that she helped create “safety plans” for Justina to help her deal with the abuse, which included determining the safest routes for her to take when leaving the house, rooms in the home she could hide in, and who to call in emergency situations.
Johnson also testified that she had never called police about her brother-in-law’s abusive behavior, saying she “didn’t want the abuse to get worse” as a result of getting law enforcement involved.
The day of the murder, during a family gathering, Johnson started drinking alcohol around noon and continued throughout the day, she testified.
After Justina left the party that evening, she later returned to Johnson’s home following a verbal argument with Jesse. Johnson said that, although Justina didn’t want her to get involved, she made the “impulsive” decision to go confront Jesse along with her husband, Austin.
According to Janelle’s testimony, Austin took a gun with him to the confrontation. She said she didn’t recall whose idea it was to bring the gun, but expressed that it was necessary to bring a gun because she knew Jesse had firearms at the home.
Once she and Austin arrived at the Farrises’ house, Janelle, Austin and Jesse got into a “heated argument,” and Janelle testified that she believed Jesse was recording the argument on his phone.
Janelle said that as she and Austin were leaving the house, Jesse became aggressive and started pushing both of them.
Janelle testified that she was “shocked” that Jesse had pushed her and she began walking away from the home and toward Austin’s truck, with the intention of leaving.
As she was walking toward the truck, Janelle said she heard two gunshots and then saw Austin walking toward her from around the porch area of the house. She testified that she didn’t witness the shooting and didn’t know Jesse had died until later in the evening when she heard law enforcement discussing it.
Janelle testified that, following the incident, she decided to tell law enforcement and family members that she was the one who shot Jesse in order to protect Austin from “going to prison and the familial destruction that may occur.”
“I felt like I got (Austin) in this situation,” she testified. “I felt some type of responsibility about that.”
When asked during her testimony why she decided to tell the truth now, more than two years after the incident, she testified that “the family and community involved need to know what actually happened.”
“Jesse Farris was a father, he was a brother, he was a spouse,” prosecuting attorney Vlieger said in closing arguments Tuesday morning. “On Dec. 25, 2020, he was left dead in the snow in his front yard.”
Vlieger told the jury that though there was no forensic evidence in the case to determine that Janelle was the shooter, he emphasized that the consistency in Janelle’s confessions should be heavily considered.
Through testimony, and in video and audio footage, Janelle had named herself as the shooter to several family members, the police dispatcher, a responding deputy, and the investigators who conducted her initial interview.
Despite the lack of forensic evidence, Vlieger said those confessions are “more than enough evidence to find her guilty of this offense.”
He also told the jury that although Janelle testified that she didn’t witness the shooting, she was able to describe details of the shooting that were consistent with the crime scene.
“It’s only now, over two years after the fact, that she needs you to believe that she was protecting her husband,” Vlieger said in closing. “It was her idea to confront Jesse, she was sick of his bulls***t, she was mad.”
In closing arguments from the defense, Brisbois noted that although he hadn’t outwardly expressed his anger toward Jesse like Janelle had, Austin had reason to shoot him because he was also upset about Jesse’s abusive behavior.
She also said Austin was the more likely perpetrator because he was sober at the time of the incident and would not have any issues aiming the gun at Jesse, who was likely running away during at least one of the three shots.
Janelle, on the other hand, was intoxicated at the time of the shooting and may have had a difficult time aiming and shooting a gun properly, Brisbois said.
She also explained that Austin was an avid hunter and was familiar with operating firearms, and that at the time of the incident, he had the gun in a holster on his side that would have been difficult for someone else to disarm.
Despite Vlieger’s argument that Janelle knew specific details about the shooting, Brisbois said otherwise.
While Janelle was able to give detailed descriptions about the day leading up to the incident, as well as the interactions she had with Jesse and other family members that night, Janelle was “vague about the shooting itself (and) the weapon used,” Brisbois said.
She also emphasized that Janelle took the blame for Austin’s crime because she wanted to protect her husband, and told the jury that they shouldn’t consider Janelle’s confessions as evidence due to the circumstances that surrounded the confessions.
“She was worried about the fallout of her close family,” Brisbois said. “(Austin) is the father of her children, this is her life partner … Her life is turned upside down regardless of what happens in this trial — but the truth is out there.”