tv Forensic Files CNN June 14, 2015 11:00pm-11:31pm PDT
-- captions by vitac -- www.vitac.com on the morning of february 20th, 1989, something terrible happened to janice johnson, a 35-year-old housewife and mother of two children. >> claire, i've got to go. i'll talk to you later, okay? >> the investigation into that morning's events would raise questions that persist to this day. clayton and janice johnson lived in the tiny coastal fishing village of shelburne, nova scotia. it's a close-knit community
where townspeople all know one another. for the johnsens, it was an ideal place to raise their two young daughters, 11-year-old donna and 9-year-old dawn. >> we had two lovely girls. we were always together. you can ask anybody around the community, whenever they saw us, we were together. very rarely we went anywhere individually. >> clayton was an industrial arts teacher at the local high school. janice was a homemaker. the johnsons were a deeply religious family and very active in their church, volunteering much of their free time to church activities. >> we were always out visiting people and doing this and that. my mom was the type of person that she didn't like to just sit around doing nothing, so we were always busy doing something. >> the morning of february 20th, 1989, was a typical one for the johnson family. after the children left for
school, clayton carried some laundry to the basement for his wife. [ phone ringing ] moments later, the telephone rang. clayton answered on the basement extension. >> hi. >> it was claire thompson, our next door neighbor. and i went up and got my coat and came back in and told her i was going, give her a kiss good-bye. and left. >> see you tonight. >> clayton then left for work, stopping along the way at a local gas station. [ knocking ] >> janice? >> a few minutes later, a neighbor stopped by the johnson's home. he discovered janice at the bottom of the stairs. she was bloody and unconscious but still alive. clayton heard the news when he arrived at work and rushed to the hospital. >> when i first seen her, i didn't recognize her because of
like all the tubes and the swelling. i'd look almost twice to realize it was her. and it was just -- just one of those things you don't want to see every day. >> janice had sustained severe head injuries from what was assumed to be an accidental fall down the basement steps. despite the best of medical treatment, janice died of her head wounds several hours later. she was just 35 years old. >> i think it was the first time i had ever seen my father cry. my first reaction was that it wasn't -- it wasn't real, like you want to believe it didn't happen. >> that's one of the hardest things i've ever done in my life, is to tell the two girls that their mother passed away. >> the small community of shelburne rallied around clayton johnson and his two daughters as they paid their last respects to
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after janice johnson's death, the chief medical examiner performed an autopsy. he was hampered to some extent by the fact that there were no photographs of the accident scene. in a misguided effort to be helpful, two family friends had washed the blood from the basement before photographs could be taken. this is a police video shot later as the women described the bloodstains. they said there was a small bloodstain on the floor at the bottom of the steps and a bloodstain with bloody hair on the concrete wall next to the third step. this recreation shows the position of janice johnson's body when paramedics arrived. her head was on the floor. her leg was above her head on the step.
in her left hand, she was holding her car keys. although dr. perry found janice johnson's wounds to be unusual, he ruled the death a freak accident, concluding that she had fallen forward down the steps to her death. he suspected that her skull had become wedged in a 5 1/2 inch space between the steps and the adjoining concrete wall, which crushed both sides of her head. when she landed on the concrete floor, she sustained the wound to the top of her head. since janice johnson was thought to be in the house alone at the time of the incident, foul play was ruled out. janice was on the telephone with claire thompson, who said she heard clayton kiss janice good-bye before leaving for work. claire thompson said they talked for ten minutes and that the
call ended around 7:50. >> can i call you later? >> oh, sure. okay. talk to you then, bye. >> witnesses saw clayton johnson at the gas station at the same time. a minute or two later, a neighbor found janice in the basement and called paramedics. the call was logged in at 7:52. >> that was, so to speak, the end of that. of course, clayton and his daughters had to deal with the great loss that they had suffered. it was only after some 18 months had passed that clayton really made what might be called a dreadful mistake. >> clayton johnson's mistake was to fall in love. soon after janice's death, clayton started dating and later married 22-year-old tina waybrit. she was a member of the johnson's church and was 30
years his junior. in the close-knit conservative community of shelburne, this new relationship raised a few eyebrows. police also discovered that clayton johnson had purchased a $120,000 life insurance policy on janice two months before she died. a background check revealed that clayton johnson was also having financial difficulties and that utility services were sometimes cut off in their home for nonpayment. >> and pretty soon, fact became confused with rumor, rumor with fact. and the more people talked, the more people wondered whether this lovable teddy bear, clayton johnson, was a wife killer. >> so police decided to reopen their investigation into janice johnson's death.
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i've been with pg&e nine years. as an employee of pg&e you always put your best foot forward to provide reliable and safe service and be able to help the community. we always have the safety of our customers and the community in mind. my family is in oakland, my wife's family is in oakland so this is home to us. being able to work in the community that i grew up in, customers feel like friends, neighbors and it makes it a little bit more special. together, we're building a better california. homicide investigators went back to re-interview the woman who cleaned up the blood after janice johnson's death. to their surprise, two years later, one of the women recalled seeing more blood in the basement than she originally reported.
on the walls, across the length of the floor, and on piles of lumber along the far wall. three years after his wife's death, clayton johnson was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. johnson pleaded not guilty to the charge. prosecutors introduced the new blood spatter testimony and also raised the issue of johnson's new love interest. >> clayton johnson was on trial for events that happened after the accident. he was on trial for the insurance monies that he collected. he was on trial for this new girlfriend that he had let move in with him. >> clayton johnson was found guilty of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison. >> i don't know how i actually stood up. i could feel my knees and everything get weakened. it took all my power to keep standing up and not falling down. it was a shock, i'll tell you.
>> have you ever felt like you were reading a book? that's what it seemed like. it didn't seem like it was -- it could be happening in my life. >> johnson was ordered to serve his sentence in the atlantic maximum security institution. from there, he contacted the association in defense of the wrongfully convicted in toronto. his story caught the attention of the director of the organization, james lockyer. >> as you go back through the miscarriages of justice in both our country, in canada that is, and the united states and in england, very often, probably as often as 40% to 50% of the time, bad science has played a significant role in a wrongful conviction. >> but the first thing lockyer noticed wasn't questionable science. it was a problem with the timeline.
claire thompson said she was on the telephone with janice johnson on the morning of her death. in her original statement, thompson said she heard clayton kiss janice good-bye at approximately 7:40. she said the call with janice lasted ten minutes, until about 7:50. a witness said clayton johnson was at the gas station at the same time, 7:50, when claire thompson said she was ending her call to janice. the neighbor found janice's body and called paramedics at 7:52. clayton was aware that janice was expecting company that morning. >> any theory that he would kill his wife in a timespan of seconds or minutes when he could legitimately expect three different people to show up at
the house in that very time that he was supposedly assaulting his life. you put all that together. the theory he killed his wife, in my view, was ridiculous. >> a blood spatter expert was also skeptical. he believes that the witnesses' original statements were probably the most accurate. >> the neighbors at that time reported that the blood was consistent with an accident. now, obviously, they're not qualified to interpret bloodstain patterns. but had they seen a lot of spattering or blood up on the walls and ceiling, i think at that time, even though they were cleaning it up, they would have a clear recollection of what it looked like and especially where they washed it up. >> another story that changed was claire thompson's. in her original statement, she said she called janice around 7:40 and that the call lasted for ten minutes.
two years later, she said she may have called closer to 7:30. this created the window of opportunity for johnson to have murdered his wife. james lockyer asked two forensic pathologists to review the forensic evidence independently, dr. linda norton of dallas, texas, and dr. james ferris of vancouver. they both examined the case file and autopsy photos. and it was what they didn't see that they found most intriguing. >> there are no defense wounds. and in a bludgeoning of this nature, considering the location of the head wounds, one would expect to see defensive wounds if this were an actual bludgeoning death. >> during an attack, most individuals instinctively raise their hands in an effort to protect themselves.
as a result, their hands and forearms sustain injuries. >> there's absolutely no evidence that the injuries were from some form of homicidal assault. >> janice johnson's car keys were in her hand when paramedics arrived. the lack of arm wounds and the car keys also cast doubt on the original forensic report, which stated that janice fell forwards down the steps. >> what occurred is that she slipped at the top of the stairs and she fell backwards instead of forwards. and, of course, most falls down the stairs are forward falls. backward falls are uncommon and i think that's what led to an awful lot of the misinterpretation in this case. >> clayton johnson's new defense team now had two major hurdles, first, to prove to the court that johnson was innocent and also to show how janice johnson
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choice but to get used to. >> it's a whole new ball game as far as your change of lifestyle. the whole thing, you know, it's a rude awakening. >> johnson's team of forensic experts did not believe that his wife's injuries were consistent with a bludgeoning death, and they did not think that she had fallen forwards, as was originally reported. they believed that janice had fallen backwards. to get johnson's conviction overturned, his lawyers needed to find a way to show how the accident really happened. they turned to blood spatter expert herb mcdonnell. but after studying the case file, mcdonnell couldn't figure out a way to recreate an accidental fall down the basement steps. >> the very night that i was about ready to call james lockyer and advise him i could not do my recreation, and i've done many of these
reconstructions or recreations, if you like, i was very disappointed. i was about to tell him that i just couldn't do it and that night i read the morning paper. i frequently don't read the paper until a day late. on the front page, here's "peter pan" at west high school. of course, i thought, "hey." >> in the production of the musical "peter pan," various characters fly across the stage in a harness. mcdonnell called the high school, borrowed the transom and the operator, and hired a model the same height and weight as janice johnson. mcdonnel then built a replica of the johnson's basement steps. he videotaped the entire procedure and put blue chalk on the wall and step where witnesses saw the blood. with the model on top of the steps, she fell backwards.
when her head fell into the gap in between the third step and the concrete wall, the chalk marks on the model's head were consistent with the injuries found on janice johnson. >> there's no question that that is a good explanation for how the wounds on janet johnson occurred over her right ear. >> it's remarkable when you see it, because the blue marks appear on the model's head exactly where the injuries are found on janice's left and right temples. >> james lockyer believes that janice johnson was still on the telephone when clayton was at the gas station and that the call ended at 7:50, just as her neighbor was arriving at the house. >> you know, i've got to go. i'll talk to you later. >> she grabbed her car keys, ran
up the steps, and lost her footing. as she fell backwards, her head became wedged in the 5 1/2-inch gap between the step and the cement wall. her feet pulled her head from the gap, flipping her body over onto the basement floor, producing the gash found on the top of her head. when all this information came to light, canadian prosecutors took the unusual step of releasing clayton johnson from prison. he had spent six years behind bars. >> just very happy to be back with my family. i'm very pleased with the decision of justice freeman and i couldn't ask for a better legal team than what i've got. and i just want to get back to my family.
>> i'm really happy right now because that means my dad is actually going to see me graduate. >> i've got my father back in my life. >> although authorities have made no final decisions about the case and there's always a chance of a retrial, many believe it will simply be dismissed. for a crime forensic experts say didn't happen, six years in prison is enough. >> that's quite right, indeed. clayton johnson wasn't convicted of a murder that he didn't commit. he was convicted of a murder that never happened. >> we've made an error. once you realize you have made an error, you do the best you can to rectify it. and the best way to rectify this case is simply to acquit this man, exonerate him, and let him go on with his life. >> whole different opinion as far as the justice system is concerned, because i've always been brought up from the time i
could walk around that police were your friend, you held them at a certain level. after going through this, it makes you think twice. on september 17, 1966, diane keidel met a boyfriend for a drink at a local night spot. after leaving the bar, she disappeared. officials weren't sure whether she ran away from the responsibilities facing a single mother with four young children or perhaps had been the victim of foul play. that question was answered 27 years later when her daughter came forward with a fantastic tale of something she saw when she was 5 years old.