Bobbie Jean Johnson in 1977

Bobbie Jean Johnson is pictured at age 18 in this photo provided by her attorneys. Johnson, who was convicted of the 1977 killing of Arthur Samson in his antiquities shop on St. Charles Avenue, is expected to be released Thursday under a deal with prosecutors.

Photo provided

A woman serving a life sentence in the 1977 killing of a St. Charles Avenue antiquities dealer has come to an agreement with prosecutors to win her release.

Bobbie Jean Johnson, who has long maintained her innocence, pleaded guilty Wednesday to manslaughter and armed robbery. She is expected to be released by Thursday after spending more than 40 years behind bars.

Criminal District Court Judge Robin Pittman, who noted that she herself was only 7 when the crime occurred, said she was proud to be a part of the process that resulted in Johnson's freedom.

"I wasn’t here at the beginning of the story, but I am here at the end," Pittman said. "Good to meet you, and good luck to you. I’m glad this day has come."

Johnson, 59, wore shackles and the blue uniform of the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in court.

In 1978, she was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Arthur Samson, who was killed inside his store at 1130 St. Charles Ave. As part of the plea deal, prosecutors vacated that conviction.

Samson’s family raised no objections to her release, according to Donna Andrieu, the chief of appeals for the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office.

Samson had been shot in the stomach and stabbed about 100 times with wounds that penetrated internal organs, the coroner said. His store was ransacked and the safe was missing about $2,000, police said.

A month after the crime, police spotted Johnson with several other people in a stolen car near the former St. Bernard housing development. They stopped the vehicle and found a .32 caliber revolver in Johnson's purse.

Johnson was not a suspect at the time, but police were on the lookout for that type of weapon, which was used in Samson’s killing. Ballistics tests matched the gun to the one used in the shooting. Johnson also confessed in a tape-recorded statement.

Johnson told police that she and another woman, Kimberly Ligon, had met Samson in the French Quarter on the night of the killing. She said Ligon solicited Samson for sex, and the two women robbed him when he brought them back to his store. Johnson told police she shot Samson first and Ligon then stabbed him.

Ligon was arrested in connection with Samson’s killing but was never tried. Efforts to reach her Wednesday were unsuccessful.

In an October 2016 appeal seeking to have her conviction reversed, Johnson’s attorneys pointed to what they said were a host of inconsistencies in her confession and in the police investigation into the killing.

“Her trial was unfair. It was a tragedy of our justice system,” said Cecelia Trenticosta Kappel, an attorney with the Promise of Justice Initiative who represented Johnson.

Johnson’s attorneys said that jurors never heard a series of facts pointing away from her guilt. They said the District Attorney’s Office should have given that information to her lawyer before the trial but never did.

The gun, or one like it, had previously been found in Ligon’s apartment during a domestic violence investigation weeks before Johnson was arrested, Johnson’s lawyers said.

Meanwhile, a man who was in the car with Johnson told police that he had slipped the gun into Johnson’s purse while they were being pulled over.

Johnson also said she left the murder scene in a stolen Pontiac Grand Prix, a car that wasn’t stolen until hours after the killing, according to Johnson’s lawyers.

Johnson’s lawyers said they believe none of that information was given to Johnson’s lawyer. They obtained much of the information from public records requests for long-archived police reports and district attorney case files.

Meanwhile, Johnson's attorneys said that key elements of her confession did not match the crime. She described Samson as being 20 years younger and a half-foot taller than he actually was. She also said she shot him once in the head and once in the chest, although the coroner found only a single bullet wound.

Johnson’s attorneys pointed to a dark explanation for the confession, which was played in full at her trial. Johnson said that detectives “bagged” her — stuffing her head inside a plastic bag to the point of near suffocation — to coerce her statement.

To make matters worse, Johnson’s appeals attorneys said, her lawyer at trial, Thomas Baumler, proved to be little more than a “warm body,” despite the fact that Johnson faced a death sentence.

Baumler, who is deceased, did not make an opening or closing statement, challenge any jurors or object to the confession's being played in court.

When a Times-Picayune reporter asked Baumler why he did not try harder to challenge the prosecution’s case, Baumler replied, according to an article, “There was nothing to get a grip on.”

Johnson faced the death penalty at her trial, but jurors voted to sentence her to life.

Johnson's guilty plea Wednesday to manslaughter mooted her effort to have her conviction tossed out and stopped short any hearings on the merits of her lawyers’ claims. In a statement, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro noted that Johnson accepted a role in the crime while pleading guilty.

After Assistant District Attorney Robert Freeman said that Johnson robbed and killed Samson alongside Ligon, Johnson agreed to that statement under questioning from the judge.

“Ms. Johnson, do you agree with the factual basis as alleged by the state?” Pittman said.

“Yes, ma’am,” Johnson said.

"We are satisfied with the result, in that we finally got a woman who killed as a teenager to acknowledge and accept responsibility for her crime 41 years later,” Cannizzaro said.

A spokesman for the office, Ken Daley, noted that as part of the plea deal Johnson’s attorneys also had to abandon their claims that the DA’s Office had failed to turn over exculpatory information. Daley called those claims “specious.”

Daley said that retrying a decades-old case would have consumed office resources and presented a challenge in finding witnesses.

Kappel said she was disappointed that her client had to admit to a role in the killing to win her freedom. “It was hurting my heart to see her doing that,” Kappel said.

Still, she was pleased that the DA’s Office agreed to resolve the case without what could have been a drawn-out fight over Johnson's innocence.

“I think they did the right thing by not fighting for what is an unjust conviction. We reached a compromise that would allow her to go free, and we’re grateful to Mr. Cannizzaro’s office,” Kappel said.

Kappel said Johnson plans to move to suburban Atlanta to live with her sister Betty and perhaps open a beauty salon.

Johnson began weeping after hearing the judge approve her release, Kappel said.

“It’s been a long time coming, and then it hits you that it’s real,” Kappel said.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432