EHS students look into 1999 Shaken Baby Syndrome case

Published 8:36 am Wednesday, November 14, 2018

If a student takes Elizabethton High School’s Alex Campbell’s sociology class, they are going to be doing way more than sitting around memorizing textbooks.

For the fall semester, Campbell’s students are working to raise awareness about new data relating to Shaken Baby Syndrome while also seeking to shorten the prison sentence of Suzanne Johnson, a woman the class believes was wrongfully convicted of killing a six-month-old at her daycare in California.

Johnson was found guilty of capital murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in 1999.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

The students, however, through their research into Shaken Baby Syndrome feel that Johnson is innocent and are preparing a letter-writing campaign to California Governor Jerry Brown in hopes that the governor will consider commutation of Johnson’s sentence.

The class’ argument centers around the thought that the science and research conducted into the shaken baby impact syndrome has changed drastically over the past few decades since Johnson’s conviction and if current understandings of the syndrome had been applied to Johnson’s case she would have been found innocent. The class believes, after research, that the child could have died from a shortfall, something of which, the medical examiner at the time of Johnson’s trial said couldn’t happen. The class has found data that “indicates shortfalls are the top three causes of infant deaths in the US.”

“The science at the time was starting to change but it was new,” said Campbell. “Twenty-five years since, a lot of the science has come out and has gone in her favor.”

At the beginning of the semester, Campbell had given his students the task of finding a case to work on and out of 120 cases, the students narrowed their focus down to Johnson. The students chose Johnson’s case after considering that she had worked many years in childcare and had never gained a bad reputation. The student’s also considered the changing science around the case and how it now points towards Johnson’s innocence.

This past Monday, the class held a Skype call with Johnson’s family.

“They were left invigorated to help her,” said Campbell of the students’ attitudes after speaking with Johnson’s family. “Just to talk with real people was really powerful for them.”

The letters that are being authored by the students and the packet of information they are preparing for Governor Brown center largely around their research into current scientific literature pertaining to Shaken Baby Syndrome. Campbell said that the class is aiming to get the letters and packet ready by Monday, Nov. 26 so they can get the information to Brown by the end of November in hopes of giving him time to consider the case before he leaves office in January.

For more information on the case visit