Alaska appeals court reverses conviction of Wasilla father charged in toddler's death
Four years after a jury found a Wasilla father guilty in the death of his 15-month-old daughter, the Alaska Court of Appeals has reversed the conviction.
Clayton Allison, now 36, has been serving a 30-year sentence for a second-degree murder conviction in the death of Jocelynn Allison, who suffered a fatal injury while in his care on Sept. 24, 2008.
When the case went to trial six years later and Allison learned his fate, he still maintained his innocence.
"I know in my heart, no matter what anyone else says, I did not kill my daughter," he said during a sentencing hearing.
The stay-at-home dad said he was trying to unclog a toilet when Jocelynn fell down the stairs. She was rushed to Providence Hospital by helicopter and later died during surgery.
After performing an autopsy, a forensic pathologist labeled the little girl's death a homicide, caused by blunt force head and neck trauma.
According to an opinion document provided by the appellate court:
"It was established during the trial that J.A., in fact, had two subdural hematomas: an older chronic one and a newer acute one. Various witnesses testified to prior falls where J.A. failed to extend her arms when she fell down, forcefully hitting her head on the ground or on a piece of furniture as a result. The defense argued that the older hematoma was likely caused by one of these prior falls, and that the older hematoma made J.A. especially vulnerable to the newer one. The State argued that, despite this preexisting injury, J.A. could not have sustained a fatal injury from a fall down the stairs and therefore the only possible explanation for her death was physical abuse."
The state's case against Clayton was based on circumstantial evidence. There were no eyewitnesses to the alleged abuse or past abuse. Clayton had unwavering support from his wife, Jocelynn's mother Christiane Allison, and a large group of community members who believed in his innocence.
"I know every detail and discovery inside and out, I know every doctor's report, I have listened to every testimony, and I have heard nothing that convinces me he is not innocent," Christiane told KTVA after Clayton's conviction.
Clayton's appeal argued that the trial court judge was wrong for not allowing him to present potentially exculpatory evidence regarding Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a hereditary tissue disorder Christiane has that might have explained the severity of their daughter's injuries.
"After J.A.'s death, J.A.'s mother traveled to the Mayo Clinic, where she was subsequently diagnosed as having "Ehlers-Danlos type 3 appearance with hypermobile joints." (This is a nonvascular version of the disorder.) According to Dr. Smith, there is a fifty percent chance of a person with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome passing on that condition to their children. According to Dr. Ophoven, a family history of any type of Ehlers-Danos Syndrome is a factor that should be considered in any case involving significant bleeding, such as J.A.'s."
State prosecutors successfully fought to keep the diagnoses and testimony regarding the disorder out of the trial. When asked to reconsider mid-trial, Judge Vanessa White reaffirmed her decision.
Clayton's supporters wore green shirts with zebra stripes in the courtroom.
"The zebra stripes represent rare diseases, and green is Clayton's favorite color," said Robert Vaughn, Clayton's father-in-law.
Now, four years later, the family is calling Clayton's conviction reversal a victory.
The court said:
"For the reasons explained here, we agree with Allison that evidence of the mother's diagnosis should have been admitted and that Allison should have been permitted to question his experts and the State's experts about the possible significance of that diagnosis. We also agree with Allison that the trial court's reasons for excluding this evidence were erroneous and predicated on an incorrect understanding of the relevant law. Lastly, we agree with Allison that the court's error was not harmless and that reversal of Allison's conviction is required."
The court's decision reversing Clayton's conviction was posted on a Facebook page dedicated to pushing for Clayton's freedom.
"This means that the State will have a window to decide 1) whether or not to appeal this to the Supreme Court, 2) whether or not to retry him. It will still be a while before he gets to come home, but this is a huge VICTORY! If they elect to retry him, we will get to request a bail hearing to try to bring him home for the process," an administrator on the page wrote in the comments.
A call to the Palmer District Attorney's Office Friday to ask whether the state plans to retry Clayton was not immediately returned.
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