Zavion Johnson, a client of the Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP) at Santa Clara Law, along with Paige Kaneb, NCIP Supervising Attorney and Professor, were featured in an episode of the Wrongful Conviction podcast, a popular True Crime series that is ranked in the top 150 Apple Podcasts in its category in the U.S. with more than 6,000 ratings. 

At the age of 18, Zavion Johnson was wrongfully convicted in 2002 of killing his 4-month-old daughter, Nadia. In 2001, in what Johnson always claimed was a tragic accident, Nadia slipped fromZavion Johnson his arms and fell in the bathtub while he was bathing her. She later died from internal injuries. Despite 15 witnesses including Nadia’s mother, testifying that Johnson was a loving, caring father, medical experts at the time cited the then-medical consensus that the only possible explanation for Nadia’s injuries and death involved Shaken Baby Syndrome.

The jurors in the original case called the medical evidence “overwhelming,” and sentenced Johnson to life in prison, even though, as one juror recollected, they “felt that Zavion Johnson was a good young man, very loving to his girlfriend and their baby girl, and that it would seem horribly out of character for him to murder his baby.” The juror went on to say, “Without that evidence, we certainly would not have convicted Zavion Johnson.”

In 2017, Johnson’s conviction was reversed after he spent nearly 17 years in prison. The San Francisco law firm Keker, Van Nest & Peters and NCIP brought new evidence, which reflected updated knowledge about the causes of Shaken Baby Syndrome and the risk of parents improperly being charged with murder in cases of household accidents.

Using modern science, medical experts—including the original pathologist that testified at Johnson’s trial—reviewed the case, and the experts agreed that Nadia’s injuries were consistent with the fall originally described by Johnson 17 years ago, and they could no longer say it was abuse. “The expert medical testimony presented at trial has been undermined and there is now medical consensus that an accidental short fall onto a hard surface can cause this type of head injury,” said Khari Tillery, a partner at Keker, Van Nest & Peters. “While nothing can give him back the 17 years he spent in prison for a crime he did not commit, we are grateful to the Court and the prosecutor for recognizing this injustice.”




The Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP) is a non-profit clinical program of Santa Clara University School of Law. NCIP’s mission is to promote a fair, effective, and compassionate criminal justice system and protect the rights of the innocent. The NCIP challenges wrongful convictions on every front by exonerating the innocent, educating future attorneys, and reforming criminal justice policy. To date, NCIP has won justice for 35 individuals who collectively have spent more than 525 years in prison. Learn more about the Northern California Innocence Project.