ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. (WJHL) – Almost four years after an Elizabethton High School sociology class made a push for the release of a wrongfully convicted woman from a California prison, they got to meet the now-free woman.
Suzanne Johnson served 21 years in prison after being convicted of assault on a child causing death in 1999 in San Diego County.
In the fall semester of 2018, Elizabethton students took on the case as a class project on wrongful convictions.
“It’s sweet to get to actually see her face and know her face after we worked so hard on her case,” said Jacey Fair, a sophomore back in 2018.
On Monday, students from the class returned to spend a couple of hours with Johnson at The Coffee Company in downtown Elizabethton.
According to the California Innocence Project, Johnson had been a reputable babysitter for years.
In 1997, a baby died after the high chair it was sitting in tipped over. Police treated it as a criminal matter.
Prosecutors claimed the baby’s injuries were consistent with shaken baby syndrome and deliberate abuse, according to the Project.
She was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
Johnson maintained her innocence throughout her prison time, saying the chair accidentally fell.
The handling of the case made an impact on students, said teacher Alex Campbell. He assigned students with the eventual goal of securing a person’s release when assigning the project.
“Teenagers know what it’s like to be falsely accused by their little brother or their parents, and they talked about how bad that felt when people think you’re guilty of something and you hadn’t done it,” Campbell said.
After a semester of research, Elizabethton students found the science of infant forensics had changed, refuting the conviction.
They presented their evidence to the California Innocence Project, which handled Johnson’s case, and the office of then-Gov. Jerry Brown, hoping Brown would free Johnson at the end of his term in January 2019.
But Brown did not release Johnson, leaving the class disappointed.
“We really thought that she was going to be out by the end of the semester after all the stuff we had done,” Fair said.
Over a year later, Johnson and the students received good news.
In 2020, Johnson was granted clemency by the new Gov. Gavin Newsom during efforts to reduce prison populations during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think that they had an integral part in getting me out. They were tweeting and texting and calling. They were constantly, constantly bugging the governor,” Johnson said.
Since 1999, medical understanding of fatal infant injuries had changed. Students found that prior understanding played a key role in Johnson’s conviction.
The California Innocence Project said eye and brain bleeding and brain swelling were common symptoms of infant abuse cases, and those symptoms were present in the baby’s skull.
Prosecutors used expert witnesses, who claimed Johnson had violently shaken the baby and hit its head against a wall.
But updated medical knowledge showed those injuries can happen in an infant fall.
Dane Cannon, a freshman at the time, took the mission to free Johnson to heart. He helped the class lead its communications to the governor and a social media campaign well after the class ended in December 2018.
“I was going to the governor’s website of California and just writing them letters for at least until the summer,” Cannon said. “Emails, some phone calls, there had to be dozens if not a few hundred.”
Johnson, now 78, came out of prison right as the pandemic started. Now past that, she spends much of her newfound freedom traveling around the country.
She remained thankful for the contributions of the Elizabethton class to her release. She said letters sent by the class to her cell lifted her spirits.
“All these beautiful letters from people who cared and believed, and that’s a big thing in prison when somebody says I believe in you,” Johnson said. “That was like the top of my list. I’m going there. I’m going to meet those kids.”
Another of Campbell’s classes played a role in identifying a victim in the Redhead Murders the previous semester.