SIOUX CITY — A federal judge has vacated the death sentence of an Iowa woman convicted of helping her boyfriend kill five people near Mason City.

Angela Johnson, 48, of Forest City,  was convicted in U.S. District Court in Sioux City in 2005 of helping Dustin Honken kill five people — including two little girls — to help cover up evidence of drug crimes. The same jury then recommended Johnson be sentenced to death for four of the slayings and receive life in prison for the fifth death.

On Thursday U.S. District Judge Mark W. Bennett filed a 448-page ruling in which he found that Johnson's trial attorneys made four mistakes during the penalty phase of her trial that may have led the jury to reach a different sentencing recommendation. Bennett's ruling does not affect Johnson's guilty verdicts. She remains incarcerated in Fort Worth, Texas.

The U.S. Attorney's Office has 60 days to appeal Bennett's ruling, decide not to seek the death penalty and have Bennett sentence Johnson to life in prison without parole or seek a new penalty phase of the trial before a jury.

Assistant U.S. Attorney C.J. Williams, who prosecuted both Johnson and Honken, said Friday the decision on how to proceed in the case will be made by Department of Justice officials in Washington, D.C. He declined to comment on Bennett's ruling.

Honken, 44, of Britt, was convicted in a separate trial and also sentenced to death and is incarcerated in Terre Haute, Ind.

Johnson had filed 64 claims for postconviction relief of her death sentence. Evidence on the motion was heard in four phases of hearings in 2011 that included 19 days of testimony from 58 witnesses and thousands of pages of legal briefs.

Bennett found four instances in which decisions made by Johnson's defense team were prejudicial, "that is, there is a reasonable probability that, had her trial counsel not performed deficiently, the outcome of Johnson's mitigation phase would have been different."

Those four claims involved errors regarding psychological evidence of Johnson's mental health.

Bennett acknowledged in his ruling that his decision would disappoint the murder victims' families and cause them pain, and that he did not take his decision lightly.

"My heart does go out to them," Bennett wrote on the second-to-last page of the lengthy decision. "Nevertheless, I believe that I have done my duty, in light of what is required by the Constitution — the foundational document of our Nation's enduring freedoms, including the right not to be put to death when trial counsel's performance was so grossly constitutionally inadequate."

Honken, formerly of Britt, was found guilty of the 1993 deaths of five people. Greg Nicholson, 34, and Terry DeGeus, 32, planned to testify against Honken in a federal court case, exposing his sophisticated Arizona methamphetamine manufacturing operation, when they disappeared. Nicholson's girlfriend, Lori Duncan, 31, and her two girls, Kandi, 10 and Amber, 6, also disappeared.

All five were found buried west of Mason City in 2000 after Honken was arrested on an unrelated drug manufacturing charge. Honken was sentenced to the death penalty.

Accomplice Angela Johnson was convicted of 10 counts of aiding and abetting Honken in the murders and also sentenced to death.

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