25 years ago, a brutal Petersburg murder led to forensic history

Updated: Jul. 11, 2019 at 4:23 PM EDT
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PETERSBURG, Va. (WWBT) - A brutal murder rocked Petersburg and the NBC12 family 25 years ago this week.

One of our own, a young production assistant, didn’t show up for work one day in 1994. Hope Hall, 22, was founded murdered in her Petersburg apartment. Her killer now serving a life sentence.

“When it happens to you, when that knock at your door happens to you, everything changes,” Hall’s mother, Carol Sievers, said. “Once you receive a sentence of death, the clock goes back to zero."

Hope Denise Hall was a fighter all her life. She beat double pneumonia at 3 years old and kidney cancer at 9. She graduated with honors from Virginia State University and got her first job in TV at NBC12.

“She was caring and sweet and quiet, didn’t bother anybody,” Sievers said.

Sievers said Hall wanted to be the journalist telling stories, not the face of a brutal crime.

“Cutting somebody’s throat three times, stabbing them from head to toe repeatedly," Sievers said.

Hall was stabbed 15 times and raped. She bled to death on the apartment’s floor.

Hope Hall was repeatedly stabbed and bled to death on the floor of her Petersburg apartment in...
Hope Hall was repeatedly stabbed and bled to death on the floor of her Petersburg apartment in 1994.

Shermaine Ali Johnson, who was 16 at the time, was already serving a 100-year sentence for the violent rapes of two other women in Virginia when DNA tied him to Hall’s murder. By the time he turned 19, he was on death row.

“You learn to walk with it," Sievers said. “It will never leave you."

Two years after Hall’s murder, a forensic scientist in Richmond tested random samples of criminals’ DNA and got a match. It was the first cold hit case of a juvenile offender in the U.S. - a precursor to the DNA databases we have today.

After her daughter’s death, Sievers made it her life’s work to fight for the equal scales of justice.

Sievers was appointed to Virginia’s parole board and became an advocate for victim’s rights. She saw first hand the power of DNA.

“Without it, there would be a lot of people still sitting in prison," Sievers said. “Without it, there’s a lot of families like myself who never know what happened to their loved one.”

We’ve interviewed Sievers many times over the years. This time, it was while traveling to her Hampton Roads home for the 25th anniversary of her daughter’s death. A moment in time the family can’t seem to ever truly escape.

“Unfortunately it is continually in my face and our family’s face because we are still in and out of court,” Sievers said.

Over the last 25 years, Sievers has watched Johnson go through two trials. His death sentence was commuted to life in prison by the Supreme Court. Three years ago, the highest court required another look at that sentence and ruled judges have to consider a sentence other than life before deciding a teen’s fate.

Sievers says since 1994 she hasn’t had a chance to breathe. No chance to grieve, no closure.

“No, there’s none. We’ll never see her again until we die," Sievers said. “We don’t have that moment of ‘she’s dead and let’s move on.’ It’s just not like that."

Johnson is now 41 years old. Shortly after the Supreme Court’s decision, his attorney say Johnson “is entitled to benefit” from the Supreme Court’s decision. They say he’s ready for his release.

Sievers says she’s forgiven Johnson.

“Does that mean I want him to get out? No,” Sievers said.

But she says, as the wait for justice dragged on, forgiveness was her only way forward.

“I couldn’t do what God called me to do if I held him all bound up in hatred and bitterness” Sievers said.

As she looks over her daughter’s final gift to her, a poem from Mother’s Day 1994, Sievers still has hope her daughter made a difference, and courts will strike a better balance, not just for violent criminals, but for the survivors left behind.

“This is not only for hope my daughter, but all the Hope Denise Halls that she represents,” Sievers said.

At the time of her death, Hall had a 3-year-old son. Sievers said he is doing well today and has a family of his own.

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