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California shaken baby conviction set aside after 15 years

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A California man is set to walk out of prison after 15 years, after a judge on Friday set aside his life sentence for shaking his 4-month-old daughter to death in 2001.

Sacramento County Superior Court Judge James Arguelles set Zavion Johnson's second-degree murder conviction aside amid questions over the medical experts' testimony that convicted him. Prosecutors agreed that current medical science wouldn't support Johnson's conviction but are considering whether to seek a new trial.

Johnson, then 18, said he accidently dropped his daughter, Nadia, in the shower and she struck her head in November 2001.

Doctors reported possible abuse after they discovered she had a fractured skull and other head injuries. Johnson was convicted and sentenced to 25-years-to-life after medical experts testified that the damage could only have come from violent shaking.

But the experts now say the tell-tale pattern of injuries isn't so clear, and Nadia could indeed have died from a fall as Johnson said.

His is among a nationwide series of recent legal challenges to what used to be accepted evidence of "shaken baby syndrome."

At least 14 people nationwide had already been exonerated since 2011 in shaken baby cases, attorneys said, citing the National Registry of Exonerations. Northwestern University's Medill Justice Project said in 2015 that there were more than 3,000 shaken baby syndrome cases nationwide, though attorneys said it's not clear how many might have resulted in wrongful convictions.

Sacramento County prosecutors said there still is "a vigorous and unsettled debate" over whether the evidence can be conclusive. But they didn't contest having Johnson's conviction set aside after two prosecution witnesses said they now doubt their own testimony given new scientific developments. They also didn't fight Johnson's request to be released without bail while they decide if other evidence warrants trying to convict him again.

"Research and scientific studies conducted after the date of Zavion Johnson's trial have altered the opinions of the prosecution experts," Sacramento County Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Grippi said in a statement. "A prosecutor's duty is not simply to win cases but to ensure that each defendant is accorded procedural justice and guilt is decided upon the basis of sufficient evidence."

His attorneys have already filed a motion seeking to have any new charges dismissed at his next hearing on Jan. 19, based on a lack of evidence beyond the experts' now-discredited testimony.

Johnson, now 34, had "the biggest smile you've ever seen" as he heard the judge's ruling in court, said Paige Kaneb, Johnson's lead attorney with the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University School of Law.

"I'm hoping for a positive future — for my life to begin," Johnson said in a statement released by his attorneys.

"He's been incarcerated for nearly half his life and now he's getting out," said Khari Tillery, co-counsel from the firm of Keker, Van Nest & Peters. "This entire case was based on the medical evidence. That medical evidence has been thoroughly undermined and repudiated."

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