Zavion Johnson | Exonerated

In November 2001, an 18-year-old Zavion Johnson was just beginning his adult life.  In addition to working for CalTrans, he was the father of a four-month-old baby girl named Nadia.  Being the oldest of seven children, Zavion was used to caring for infants and absolutely adored his daughter. 

“Everybody said she was my twin.  The nose, the eyes – see the pictures and you’ll see.”

And then the unimaginable happened.  Zavion was bathing Nadia when she accidently slipped from his hands and hit her head on the side of the tub.  Nadia would later die from internal head injuries.  Zavion, his girlfriend Raquel, and their families were devastated. But this was the only the beginning of their nightmare. 

Zavion spent over 16 years in prison for his daugther's tragic death based on faulty "science" before new medical evidence would prove he had told the truth the whole time (more below).

Thanks to brave doctors and his legal team, Zavion finally walked out of prison and officially became a free man on December 8, 2017.  But he walked out with nothing.  No money, no identification, no phone, no wallet, no toiletries, no home, and no clothes other than orange paper pants and a white t-shirt provided by the jail, and a sweatshirt handed to him by an attorney.

Zavion with Ben Hur, one of his attorneys, right after walking out of prison.  

Zavion is living with one of the members of his legal team.  Imagine trying to start your life at 34, with nothing, after being arrested at 18 and spending half of your life in prison for a crime you did not commit.  What you would need?   How much money would it take to build a life from scratch and start out on the right path?

I'm one of the attorneys who was privileged to represent Zavion and finally bring him justice.  His legal team is trying to help him get back on his feet, but we need your help.  Zav needs everything.  Suits for job interviews, clothes for daily living, first and last month's rent, a bed, a pillow, a couch, a car or transportation funds, everything.  He worked in prison, but made 11 cents an hour, and accrued no social security, no retirement.  He also needs the very thing our State stole from him: time.  We can't give him back those 16 years, but we can give him time now with the easiest thing to give - money.  You can give Zavion time to readjust and find his footing.  You can give him time to enjoy his freedom and learn to do all the things to which he has been denied access, time start earning his counseling degree, time to get back on track to achieving his dreams, dreams that were deferred for 16 long years while he fought for his freedom.  

More about Zavion and his Wrongful Conviction:

On December 4, 2001, Zavion was arrested at Nadia's funeral and charged with second-degree murder.   At his trial, 13 witnesses, including Nadia’s mother, testified that Zavion was a loving, patient father who never would have deliberately hurt his daughter.  But none of this testimony mattered in the face of (admittedly false) expert medical testimony that Nadia’s injuries could not have been caused by a short fall, as Zavion truthfully explained, but only by violent shaking, also known as “Shaken Baby Syndrome.”

The jury was ultimately convinced by the strength of the medical evidence, even though they felt that Zavion “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 court also noted the medical evidence was “overwhelming,” and sentenced Johnson to life in prison.

Zavion spent more than 16 years in prison—nearly half his life—for a crime he did not commit.

“I went straight from that to the funeral to learning how to survive in prison.  I still haven’t had time to grieve.”     
After years of attempting to prove his innocence on his own, the Northern California Innocence Project (“NCIP”) agreed to take on Zavion’s case.  NCIP’s reinvestigation focused on scientific advancements showing that the head injuries typically associated with SBS can also be caused by a short fall, just as Zavion had explained more than 16 years earlier.

NCIP contacted various medical experts, including the original pathologist who testified at Johnson’s trial, to review the case based on current scientific knowledge. The experts agreed that Nadia’s injuries are consistent with the fall originally described by Johnson nearly 17 years ago.

NCIP, along with pro bono partner Keker, Van Nest & Peters LLP, challenged Zavion’s conviction in the Sacramento County Superior Court.  On October 31, 2017, the Sacramento County District Attorney conceded that Johnson’s petition for relief should be granted.  “It is reasonably probable that had the information available now on this topic had been available then, the outcome of the trial could have been different,” prosecutors wrote last October. “Based on the current state of the law and the circumstances of the case, the conviction should be vacated and set aside."

On December 8, 2017, Johnson’s murder conviction was reversed, and he walked out of the same county jail he had been taken to in handcuffs more than 16 year earlier.  He walked out a free man ... an innocent man.

“I’m ready to start my life.  I’m ready for it to continue.”

On January 19, 2018, the District Attorney dropped all charges.  “It’s our job to do the right thing. This gave us the opportunity to do it,” Prosecutor Steve Grippi explained, adding that his office plans to review “other cases that may fall under the same scenario.”

Zavion with his legal team.  "They’re family.  I nicknamed them 'The Justice League."

Zavion and his mother, Gai Toi Williams.

Zavion with his younger sister, Jazzi Johnson.

Despite being out of prison less than three months, Zavion is already working on behalf of Exonerated Nation, a non-profit based in Oakland that serves California exonerees.  On January 17, 2018, Zavion, along with other exonerees, spoke to California State Senators about the plight of exonerees, who are provided little resources from the State, despite everything that was taken from them.

“We talked about being exonerated, the issues that we face – no housing, food, clothing. We want help, an opportunity, job training. We’re just trying to get back to some normal society.”

Having spent his entire adult life in prison, Zavion has very limited resources.  He is currently living with his legal counsel and looking for steady work.  Eventually, he would like to go back to school to become a youth counselor.  And he could use your help.  While Zavion can never get back the 16+ years he spent wrongfully incarcerated by the State, your support can help faciliate his transition from prison to following his deferred dreams.

If you want to read more about Zavion's incredible story of tragedy and redemption, click on this in-depth article in the Sacramento Bee (Zavion's hometown paper).

I will be withdrawing the funds raised on this campaign and helping Zavion manage them for the items outlined above.  Thank you for your generosity and support.
    • $21 
    • 20 mos
  • Eileen Jones 
    • $10 
    • 23 mos
  • Martha Lee 
    • $10 
    • 28 mos
  • Jeanne Dickson 
    • $50 
    • 28 mos
  • Bryan Benish 
    • $10 
    • 29 mos
See all


Khari Tillery 
San Francisco, CA
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