No Contest Plea Staves Off Death Penalty

By Maxine Bernstein | The Oregonian | February 11, 2006

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SUMMARY: Confidential deal Deniz Aydiner is sentenced to life in prison in the 2001 death of UP student Catherine Johnson

Deniz C. Aydiner, a Turkish citizen linked by DNA to the 2001 sexual assault and killing of a University of Portland student, pleaded no contest Friday and was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 37 years.

Multnomah County Judge Keith Meisenheimer said the sentence was appropriate, given the "extreme cruelty and brutality" of the May 29, 2001, killing of Catherine Mary Helene Johnson.

"It will consume most, if not all of the rest of his life," Meisenheimer said. "He will not have a family of his own."

Aydiner, 32, also agreed to perform certain "obligations" under a confidential deal reached with Johnson's family and the family's attorney, John R. Potter of Vancouver. The details were sealed. Prosecutors said this clause was key to arriving at the plea deal but declined to discuss it.

Yet several lawyers not involved in the case and a victim's advocate have said that it likely would require Aydiner to have a "sit down" with the victim's family or attorney and provide testimony that would support a future wrongful death and negligence lawsuit against the University of Portland. Johnson's family retained Potter to evaluate whether to pursue legal action against the university. So far, no civil action has been filed.

The police investigation into Johnson's killing had revealed Aydiner had burglarized three other women's rooms in the same Mehling Hall dormitory where Johnson was killed during spring break 2001, more than two months before Johnson's death. A dormitory master key had been stolen. Public safety officers and resident assistants told investigators that the university had started changing locks on the interior dorm rooms but hadn't finished before Johnson's killing.

Friends found Johnson, 21, sexually assaulted and strangled in a second-floor room of Mehling Hall. Her room was locked, and she was discovered lying on her back on the floor, unclothed. Medical examiners noticed a "railroad-track-pattern" injury around her wrists, suggesting she was restrained by handcuffs, court reports said. She had moved into the dormitory two weeks earlier to work as a residence hall monitor for summer session.

Johnson's mother, Edie Rollison, speaking from the front row of the crowded courtroom Friday, said the family is glad to be spared a public trial and the lengthy appeals process. She addressed her remarks to Aydiner, who sat with his back to her, expressionless throughout the proceeding.

"Perhaps someday you will come clean. I pray that someday you will be able to make a full confession," she said. "Today is a step, but not the end. Pleading no contest is just not enough . . . tell the truth."

She recounted how she learned of her daughter's death. She was watching the TV news and heard the report on the university homicide. Although it did not mention the victim's name, Johnson's mother said she had a sinking feeling right away.

"I knew immediately it was Kate," she said, "and at that moment my life as I knew it came to an end."

Once the numbness of learning her daughter was killed eased, the mother said she vowed to be strong. Yet she said there were still times she wanted to die, and times of "gut-wrenching agony" that would come amid periods of intense pride and joy for all that her daughter was able to accomplish in her short lifetime.

Kate Johnson, as she was known, was born in Hillsboro and grew up in Vancouver. She graduated at the top of her class at Evergreen High School. Her first college choice was Pacific Lutheran University, but financial incentives wooed her to the University of Portland, 17 miles from home. There, she was a music education major, student-taught to prepare herself for a job as a high school band teacher and volunteered for Habitat for Humanity.

Edie Rollison told Aydiner he not only cut Kate's life short but tormented her relatives, namely her brother, 24-year-old Jason Johnson.

"I see his pain, and I hurt all over again," she said. "You took his only sister, and that is just wrong."

Search for a killer

Johnson's high-profile and violent death --the university's first on-campus homicide of a student --stunned the community and frustrated detectives. Police had not identified a suspect more than a year after her death. Initially, they began taking oral swabs from staff and others who had access to her dorm to compare DNA with crime scene evidence.

By early 2003, with no firm leads, a team of four detectives widened their scope, seeking oral swabs for DNA evidence from others who had contact with Johnson and were on campus at the time. In February 2003, Aydiner, a former university student who had been an acquaintance of Johnson, fell within that group and police said he voluntarily agreed to have detectives take a swab.

DNA evidence obtained from a stain on a pillowcase in Johnson's room and from a swab taken from her right wrist matched Aydiner's DNA profile. By then, Aydiner had left the country and was in Turkey; his U.S. business visa also had expired. Federal agencies assisted police to make sure Aydiner obtained the necessary visa to return to the United States. He was arrested Jan.16, 2004, at the airport.

Under the 24-page agreement hashed out after days of intense negotiations, Aydiner pleaded no contest to 10 counts of aggravated murder, one count of first-degree sex abuse, one count of attempted rape; two counts of first-degree sodomy and four counts of burglary. Three of the burglary charges stem from break-ins to three other students' dorm rooms in Mehling Hall during spring break 2001.

Police recovered stolen women's necklaces and earrings in the North Portland home Aydiner shared with his wife.

All interests served?

Judge Meisenheimer said the death penalty was not warranted in Aydiner's case because he had no prior criminal record. Yet he said the crime demanded the "most serious of consequences."

"A more horrendous crime is difficult to imagine," the judge said.

Given two years credit for time already served in jail, Aydiner will be eligible for parole in 35 years, or at age 67. He will be eligible to petition for parole only if he adheres to all terms of the plea deal and shows good behavior in prison. If paroled, he will be immediately deported to Turkey and can never become a U.S. citizen. He will also have to register as a sex offender and remain on post-prison supervision the rest of his life.

"Mr. Aydiner will never be free to threaten this community," Meisenheimer said.

Prosecutors Don Rees and Norm Frink said the plea and sentence served the family's and the state's interests.

Another factor that led to the plea agreement was the potential that the DNA evidence could have been thrown out at trial. "The prosecution could not have prevailed without DNA evidence," Frink said.

Stephen Houze, Aydiner's defense attorney, had argued that Aydiner did not knowingly and voluntarily provide an oral swab for DNA purposes because police were not forthright on how it could impact his immigration status. In a tape-recorded phone call with a Portland detective, Aydiner expressed concerns about his immigration status and the police said the request for his DNA had nothing to do with that. Houze argues that while police were seeking it for a criminal case, it clearly could affect his immigration, according to court records.

Houze will continue to argue before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that law enforcement violated international law by luring Aydiner back from Turkey in 2004 to arrest him. But the state, buoyed by opinions from Multnomah County circuit, appeals and state Supreme Court judges who rejected Houze's argument, are confident that his appeal will fail.

Mother's last words

Friends of the Johnson family, another victim who had her dorm room burglarized by Aydiner, police detectives and a university pastor attended Friday's hearing. In a prepared statement, the Rev. E. William Beauchamp, university president, thanked police for their work and said he was grateful to the justice system for helping to resolve Johnson's tragic loss.

Rollison was the only family member to speak in court. When she spoke, tears flowed from the victim's father, Russell Johnson, and Kate's brother hung his head between his hands.

The mother said she's forgiven Aydiner and doesn't harbor anger but much sadness for him. "No one can ever take away our memories of the past," Edie Rollison said. "Not even murder can separate us from Kate."

Aydiner didn't move.

"You have not and will not destroy my life," she said. "I am strong. I am a child of God, and Kate's mother forever."