After maintaining his innocence for 17 years, a California father was freed this winter when Sacramento Superior Court Judge James Arguelles overturned his murder conviction, citing evolving medical thinking about infant head trauma.
Zavion Johnson said in 2001 that he had accidentally dropped his 4-month-old daughter Nadia in the bathtub, but he was convicted by medical testimony that the girl had been shaken to death. Then, in the years since his trial, two of the prosecution experts changed their positions. Prompted by Khari Tillery, a private attorney working pro bono, and Paige Kenab of the Northern California Innocence Project, both doctors provided affidavits saying they now believe a household fall could explain the child’s injuries.
The prosecution’s own filing in the case recognized that the original medical testimony, now recanted, had been key to Johnson’s conviction. In an excellent treatment of the exoneration, Sacramento Bee reporter Darrell Smith quoted a juror who said the panel had relied entirely on the medical evidence:
“All of the doctors said these injuries to Nadia could only have been caused by severe shaking of the baby… One doctor after another, they presented this united front that the medical evidence speaks… We agreed that it didn’t seem to fit him [Johnson]. He really loved his baby and took care of her. We felt he did do it, but that it was badly out of character.”
Zavion Johnson was accused at the age of 18, released at 34. Because the jury believed the doctors over Johnson—and over 13 character witnesses, including the child’s mother—he has spent almost half his life, all of his adult life, behind bars. In an email after his release, celebrating the many people who had donated their time and expertise to the appeal, Kenab wrote, “Zavion took his first hot shower since he was 18 years old last night, laid down in a real bed with a real pillow, and from the moment he walked out, told us over and over again how different the air smelled. Thank you.”
The case was closed in January of 2018, when the state dismissed all charges, according to J0hnson’s entry in the National Registry of Exonerations.
I’m eager to see this new thinking at work on behalf of other innocent parents and caretakers convicted by flawed testimony about short falls—like the six people I wrote about in my 2014 post Short Falls, Long Sentences, who all remain in prison.
I see progress, but it’s slow and halting. Child care provider René Bailey in New York was released from prison in 2014, when Judge James J. Piampiano vacated her murder conviction, citing what he called “a compelling and consequential shift in mainstream medical opinion” about pediatric short falls. Unlike Johnson’s prosecutor, however, Bailey’s refiled the charges.
On the eve of a scheduled retrial last summer, Bailey agreed to a plea deal that avoided the risk of a second conviction and more jail time. Under what’s known as an “Alford plea,” Bailey stated in open court that she was pleading guilty to assault because she believed the state would be able to prove its case against her at trial. “She was not forced to say she did something she didn’t do,” pointed out her attorney, Prof. Adele Bernhard, director of the New York Law School Post-Conviction Innocence Clinic. “This is a compromise and not a very happy one,” Bernhard conceded, “but one that allows René to move on with her life and start to move forward.”
The court accepted Bailey’s plea and set a sentence of 12 and a half years, less than the 13 years she had already served, so she remains free but on probation.
In New Jersey, meanwhile, a panel of appeal judges has upheld the conviction of Michelle Heale, a mother and babysitter who said the toddler in her care had choked on a packet of applesauce. Her conviction was based on the triad, with no signs of impact.
In Kentucky, a young man has been sentenced to eight years in prison after accepting a plea deal—the newspaper report says he was accused of shaking but doesn’t specify the charges. He had reported an accidental fall.
And I’ve recently come across a 2016 murder conviction in Oregon, where mother and babysitter Sarah Martin is serving a life sentence for the death of a 7-month-old who quit breathing in her care. She said she thought the boy had choked on a whole grain snack.
On the bright side, a judge in North Carolina dropped murder charges against a Marine veteran who had been in jail for more than five months, after a local pathologist contacted the district attorney to say the man’s daughter had died of a rare heart condition. The video (click on the arrow in the opening image on the WFMY page) continues beyond the end of the text version, after this provocative statement from defense attorney Taylor Brown:
“It is extremely frightening to know that this could happen to anybody. And in fact if you spend 10 minutes on the Internet, you will find out that it is happening all over the country,” he said.
Reporter Erica Harper says she took that advice and found a number of disputed cases on line—the graphics show browser listings for a few of the classic critiques of shaking theory, like the NPR interview with Dr. Norman Guthkelch; the 2016 Washington Post exposé; and the Time magazine treatment of the Annie Li case in New York.
But none of these treatments seems to have had a noticable impact, any more than Lee Scheier’s 2005 treatment in the Chicago Tribune, Emily Bazelon’s 2011 treatment in the New York Times, or the 2011 collaboration among ProPublica, PBS “Frontline,” and NPR—all of which I’d hoped would help wake up the world to the ongoing injustice.
Because short falls are a theme of this posting, I end it with a video demonstration prepared by emeritus physics professor Richard Reimann, who used an SBS demonstration doll to illustrate one difference between shaking without impact and a short fall. See also his analyses of various fall scenarios, with excellent illustrations.
copyright 2018, Sue Luttner
If you are not familiar with the debate surrounding shaken baby theory, please see the home page of this blog.