Wrongly convicted man set free in Nova Scotia

A Nova Scotia man has been released from jail almost a decade after being convicted of killing his wife.

Nine years and half a million dollars in legal bills later, Nova Scotia carpenter Clayton Johnson was finally cleared Monday of murdering his wife.

The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal overturned Johnson's 1993 first-degree murder conviction, and ordered a new trial. But when the Crown said it had no new evidence to offer and would not proceed, Johnson was declared a free man.

It was the end of a 13-year ordeal for the former high school teacher an ordeal that began in February, 1989 when a neighbour found Johnson's wife Janice dying at the bottom of a flight of stairs in the couple's Shelburne, N.S. home.

Johnson insisted he was on his way to school at the time, and the death was ruled accidental. But later, pathologists decided that the head injuries of which she died had been caused not by a fall, but by either a baseball bat or a two-by-four.

  • February 20, 1989: Janice Johnson is found lying unconscious at the bottom of a set of basement stairs at her home in Shelburne, Nova Scotia. She dies from her injuries in the hospital.
  • May 4, 1993: Johnson's husband, Clayton, is found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison for his wife's death.
  • March 8, 1994: The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal unanimously dismisses Clayton Johnson's appeal.
  • February 2, 1995: The Supreme Court of Canada dismisses an application to appeal the case
  • March 31, 1998: Clayton Johnson and the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted submit an application to Canada's Department of Justice to revisit the case. On the same day the CBC program the fifth estate airs an investigative documentary on Clayton Johnson's conviction.
  • April 3, 1998: John Briggs of Halifax, Nova Scotia, is named to assist the Department of Justice in the investigation of Johnson's application.
  • July 30, 1998: The investigation into Johnson's case and application is completed.
  • September 21, 1998: Clayton Johnson is freed after several pathologists conclude the death was the result of a freak accidental fall that resulted in massive, fatal head injuries. The Minister of Justice refers the case to the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal, noting the power of this court to acquit Johnson, something the minister can't do.
  • February 18, 2002: The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal orders a new trial, overturning the original conviction. Earlier the same day, the Crown had said it will not enter any new evidence. Johnson is a free man.
Johnson was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years in jail, but he steadfastly maintained his innocence. In 1995, Johnson's cause was taken up by the Toronto-based Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted. 

The case gained widespread attention it was the subject of at least two documentaries and attracted interest from forensic pathologists from all over the world.

He spent five years in jail before being released in 1998, after several of those experts agreed Janice's head wounds were likely caused not by a weapon, but by a freak, accidental fall.

It was their findings that prompted the province's Appeal Court to order a new trial Monday.

Smiling broadly and embracing his parents and two daughters, Johnson left the court room to be met by dozens of well-wishers and a throng of reporters.

Despite his ordeal, Johnson insisted he was neither bitter, nor disillusioned with the justice system.

"Going back to my trial, they only had what evidence they had to work with," Johnson said. "If they'd had everything, it would have been a different story.

"You've got to have faith in the justice system, otherwise the world's going to fall apart."

Johnson said Monday he hasn't yet decided whether to sue the province for damages. His legal bills are over $500,000.