Governor Commutes Sentences of Four People, Including Subject of Book, Represented by the Innocence Project

Joann Parks was convicted for the 1989 arson deaths of her three children and the subject of the book Burned from 2019. She had her sentence commuted and will be eligible to appear in front of a parole board.

On Friday, Governor Gavin Newsom announced that he granted five pardons and 21 commutations.

In their press release, the governor’s office noted, “These clemency grants were in progress before the COVID-19 crisis. In addition to the public safety and justice factors that the Governor normally considers when reviewing clemency cases, he also considered the public health impact of each grant, as well as each inmate’s individual health status and the suitability of their post-release plans, including housing.”

The release adds that the governor regards clemency as “an important part of the criminal justice system that can incentivize accountability and rehabilitation, increase public safety by removing counterproductive barriers to successful reentry, and correct unjust results in the legal system.”

The governor weighs numerous factors in his review of clemency applications, including “an applicant’s self-development and conduct since the offense, whether the grant is consistent with public safety and in the interest of justice, and the impact of a grant on the community.”

Four of these individuals that were granted Clemency were California Innocence Project Clients: Joann Parks, Suzanne Johnson, Rodney McNeal, and David Jassy.

Ms. Johnson and Ms. Jassy are expected to be released immediately, while the two others will be released following parole hearings.

The California Innocence Project (CIP) in their release notes that they have been working on the cases for years.

Joann Parks was convicted for setting a fire to her home that resulted in the deaths of her three young children in 1989.  Her story and the tragic conviction and denial of various appeals was the subject of the 2019 book by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Edward Humes.

Investigators were sloppy, and misunderstood arson science.

As Edward Humes writes, “Indicators of arson that had been passed on across generations of fire investigators, and that had been used to send people to prison for decades, were wrong. The same supposedly suspicious indicators occurred in accidental fires, too.”

He added, “Those theories had never really been tested before in a scientific way. They merely had been the received wisdom in the fire investigation business, their admissibility in court becoming a legal precedent and never questioned after that—”

In a 2016 article from the Los Angeles Times quoting Investigator Ed Nordskog, he told Patti Morison, “The Willingham case has obviously rocked the arson industry. It’s not the only one – there’s many, many cases that were egregious, egregiously done. States’ Innocence Projects have attacked a lot of arson cases; I’m dealing with one right now from 30 years ago.

“The arson industry was turned on its head twenty-five years ago when fire scientists got involved and realized a lot of what arson investigators believed and were taught was absolutely wrong, scientifically not correct,” Mr. Nordskog told columnist Patti Morrison. “And the scientists have come a long way in fixing that part of the industry.”

In 2006, CIP began investigating the Joann Parks case.  Parks, who has been in prison since 1993 for a fire that killed her three children, has always maintained her innocence.  CIP presented evidence in 2015 that discredited the state’s theory of arson. Parks was sentenced to life without parole, but will now be eligible to appear in front of the parole board.

Rodney McNeal was arrested in 1997 for the stabbing death of his pregnant wife and has maintained his innocence.  He received two consecutive 15 to life terms.  He was 27 years old at the time of the crime but is now 50.  He has been incarcerated for 22 years.

In 2007, CIP presented Rodney McNeal’s claim of innocence in the San Bernardino Superior Court.  McNeal was at work at the time his wife was murdered. McNeal has always maintained his innocence.  After investigating the case for several years, CIP uncovered evidence that another man committed the murder.  That same alternate suspect has been convicted of two other murders.

Suzanne Johnson’s case involved an infant who accidentally fell out of a high chair and succumbed to a fatal head injury.  Johnson was convicted of assault on a child causing death under a theory of Shaken Baby/Shaken Slam Syndrome. Doctors testified Johnson’s version of events was impossible.  Today’s science, over 20 years later, supports Johnson’s version of what happened.

The governor writes, “Ms. Johnson is now 75 years old and has been incarcerated for more than 22 years.  She maintains her innocence, but she has an excellent record while in prison.”

In his commutation, the governor notes that David Jassy in 2008, confronted “John Osnes during an altercation, then unintentionally struck him with his car when was leaving, resulting in his death.”

The governor notes that Mr. Jassy is now 45 years old and has been incarcerated for 11 years. In his application for clemency, Mr. Jassy expressed deep remorse for this crime,writing, “I realize that the night I took Mr. Osnes’s life I forfeited my right to freedom, and that there is no way anything I do going forward will make up for my actions.”

CIP began looking into the David Jassy case in 2019.  Jassy was convicted of murder following an altercation.  Although Jassy admitted to punching the victim, he maintained he did not intentionally strike the victim with his car, as the prosecution had argued. The governor recognized that the tragic incident was accidental in the clemency announcement.

“I’m thrilled,” said Justin Brooks, Director of the California Innocence Project and a Professor of Law at California Western School in San Diego.  “This was absolutely the right decision by the Governor and I am very grateful that he made it. We’ve been advocating for these clients for many years based on the strong evidence of their innocence.  Combine that with the threat to their health by the pandemic and there is no doubt they all deserve their freedom.”

Log onto the California Innocence Project website to learn more about the cases: Suzanne Johnson, Rodney McNeal, David Jassy, and JoAnn Parks.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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