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Governor weighing clemency petition in North Park infant death case

Posted at 4:52 PM, Jan 04, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-04 21:51:03-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - The clock is ticking as family members of Suzanne Johnson wait to see if Governor Jerry Brown will grant clemency before he leaves office Monday.

Six-month-old Jasmine Miller died while under the care of Johnson at her home daycare center in North Park in 1997. Johnson found guilty of assaulting Jasmine and sentenced to life in prison.

Prosecutors argued Johnson was frustrated by the baby's crying, pointing to the accepted signs of Shaken Baby Syndrome: Bleeding behind the eyes, and bleeding and swelling in the brain.

"We've seen a major shift in the science of Shaken Baby Syndrome," said Mike Semanchik, managing attorney with the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law.

According to Semanchik, "based on the science we know now, the jury at the time would not have found Suzanne Johnson guilty."

Medical consensus now says those telltale signs of shaken baby syndrome can be caused by various medical conditions and accidental falls from short heights.

Johnson says Jasmine fell out of her high chair but seemed okay, before becoming unresponsive hours later.

"The evidence supports an equal theory for a fall, as it does for an intentional act," said Semanchik.

The science has not been enough to persuade the courts. All appeals for a new trial have been rejected.

"Missing her has been pretty horrific," said Sharon Johnson, Suzanne's daughter-in-law. She describes her mother-in-law as a loving woman who has remained positive, leading bible study and other groups in prison. She's up for parole in 2020, but Sharon hopes a petition for clemency on the governor's desk will be granted.

"She's 74. She's been wrongly incarcerated for 20 years. We just want her home," said Sharon Johnson.

Semanchik says new evidence also shows paramedics forced a breathing tube down the baby's esophagus rather than her windpipe, an error that could have contributed to her death.

A spokesperson for the District Attorney's office says they are in touch with Jasmine's family and remain opposed to the clemency petition.

Former District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, who did not support arguments for a new trial, has submitted a letter in support of the clemency petition.

"She has done well in prison. She is no longer a threat to society. I support her being let out one year early," said Dumanis.