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Updated Medical Science Frees Wrongfully Incarcerated Father

Press Release

The California Superior Court in Sacramento today granted a writ of habeas corpus overturning the 2002 murder conviction of Zavion Johnson. Mr. Johnson spent nearly 17 years in California state prison after he was wrongfully convicted of the homicide of his 4-month-old daughter Nadia when he was 19 years old. The San Francisco law firm of Keker, Van Nest & Peters LLP and the Northern California Innocence Project represent Mr. Johnson and filed the petition on his behalf.

In a tragic accident, Mr. Johnson’s daughter slipped from his arms and fell into the bathtub while he was rinsing her off in the shower; she later died from her injuries. During trial, all 13 lay witnesses testified that Mr. Johnson was a loving, caring, calm, gentle, and patient father who had significant experience caring for young children. And, they said, it would be completely out of character for Mr. Johnson to purposefully injure his daughter. However, the prosecution’s medical experts relied on the general medical consensus in 2001-2002 and testified that the only possible explanation for Nadia's injuries and death at four months old was the result of violent shaking, so-called “Shaken Baby Syndrome,” along with an impact with a hard surface.

The medical evidence presented at trial was the sole basis for the conviction.  According to juror Mark Melnicoe, “it was purely on that basis - the medical evidence - that we felt there was only one choice - to convict. Without that evidence, we certainly would not have convicted Zavion Johnson.”  The Shaken Baby Syndrome diagnosis has since been repudiated by the medical examiner who performed Nadia’s autopsy and undermined by later scientific research and medical advances.

During the past decade, the medical consensus about infant head trauma has changed dramatically, Keker, Van Nest & Peters partner Khari Tillery and lead counsel in Mr. Johnson’s case, said.

“The expert medical testimony presented at trial has been repudiated or undermined,” Mr. Tillery said. “There is now medical consensus that an accidental short fall onto a hard surface can cause the type of head injuries suffered by Nadia. While we lament that Mr. Johnson spent nearly 17 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, we are grateful to the Court and the prosecutor for recognizing this injustice after we filed the petition.”

“Zavion is one of the most gentle, caring, and thoughtful people I have ever met and society will be a better place the moment he re-joins it,” said NCIP attorney Paige Kaneb.

Shaken Baby Syndrome is typically diagnosed based on a triad of internal head injuries: retinal hemorrhage, bleeding over the brain, and encephalopathy (brain swelling). In May 2015, The Medill Justice Project from Northwestern University cited that there were more than 3,000 shaken-baby syndrome cases in U.S. courts. It’s not possible to know how many of those individuals have been wrongfully convicted. In the U.S. at least 14 people have been exonerated in shaken baby cases since 2011, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. In the U.K. and Ontario, Canada the courts have undertaken a systemic review of shaken baby convictions.

Mr. Johnson is represented by Khari Tillery, Ben Hur, and Sarah Salomon at Keker, Van Nest & Peters and Linda Starr, Paige Kaneb, and Aaron Aguas-Rao from the Northern California Innocence Project. The case is In the Matter of Zavion Johnson, No.17HC0084, Sacramento Superior Court.