Exonerated: Zavion Johnson
How a legal “Justice League” is helping an innocent man get back on his feet after life in prison.
“He came out of prison with nothing — literally walked out with paper pants on.”
Zavion Johnson was 19 years old when he was incarcerated for the second-degree murder of his baby daughter Nadia. After more than a decade and a half behind bars, he left a free man after a judge threw out his sentence.
Now, at 34 years old, Zavion must start from scratch, and his attorney Khari Tillery and the rest of his legal team are helping him find his way on the outside.
“People want someone to blame when a baby dies,” says Khari. “It’s anathema to us as a society.”
In 2001, Zavion was holding his baby Nadia after a bath when she slipped out of his arms and her head hit the back of the cast-iron bathtub. Two days later, Zavion and his girlfriend Racquel Wynn’s baby girl was taken off life support.
It was a tragic, devastating accident that took a beloved child from her parents. Based on the medical consensus at the time, which has since been undermined, authorities were concerned that Nadia’s internal head injuries were the result of so-called “shaken baby syndrome.”
The day Zavion buried his daughter, he was arrested and charged with second-degree murder and assault on a child resulting in death.
During his trial, he maintained his innocence, and more than a dozen witnesses testified that Zavion was a gentle, caring father. But they were no match for the overwhelming medical evidence of shaken baby syndrome that seemed conclusive — and the jury agreed.
Zavion was convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life.
In addition to getting his GED, training as an electrician, and devouring self-improvement books, Zavion spent his time in prison tirelessly working on his case. He pored over court files and dug into forensic research that would help show that Nadia’s injuries were consistent with an accidental fall.
Over the course of a decade in prison, Zavion filed five habeas corpus petitions — all were denied. But his years of careful work started to finally pay off when, in 2012, the Northern California Innocence Project became interested in his case.
“The amazing thing about representing people in prison is that they remember everything,” says Khari.
“They notice everything. They have an intense focus that people on the outside don’t have. Time moves differently in prison — it moves slowly.”
This is a stark contrast to the high-powered, high-tech clients Khari usually interacts with in his job as a partner at the San Francisco law firm Keker, Van Nest & Peters. And the stakes feel different as well.
“I tend to be more reserved with my pro-bono clients,” Khari explains. “I’m scared that I won’t be able to help them. It’s a tough thing to tell someone with a life sentence that there’s nothing you can do.”
He says he’s learned how to open up more with incarcerated clients from Paige Kaneb, Supervising Attorney at the Northern California Innocence Project and member of what Zavion calls “The Justice League,” a group of attorneys and a paralegal who have worked together for his exoneration.
This group of legal professionals carried on what Zavion started and were able to present new scientific information about shaken baby syndrome to the forensic experts who testified at his trial. The strength of the new evidence was such that the experts walked back their testimony — agreeing that Nadia’s injuries were consistent with a fall. The prosecutors conceded that Zavion’s conviction should be vacated, and on December 8, 2017, that’s exactly what the court did.
At last, Zavion was free.
“A lot of people assume that you get compensation if you’re wrongfully convicted,” says Khari. “But it’s not that simple.”
If there’s no way to definitively prove that you are innocent — say, with DNA evidence that someone else committed a crime — then the state currently does not owe exonerees any kind of financial remuneration.
To help Zavion begin his life again at age 34, Khari has started a GoFundMe. Right now, Zavion is living with a member of “The Justice League” in Hayward, California. He has no job, no car, no permanent place to live.
Khari hopes this GoFundMe will give Zavion “a little breathing room to figure out what to do with his life. He deserves it.”
“When you read the trial transcripts, there were 13 lay witnesses. Every single one testified that Zav was kind, gentle, loving. If you met him today, you would still describe him like that — after 16 years of prison.”
Khari marvels that Zavion “can come out and not be consumed by bitterness.”
“This is reflective of the human spirit, and how indomitable it is.”