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Former Elizabethton high schoolers meet woman they helped free from a wrongful conviction

It was hug after hug when California resident Suzanne Johnson met with the students who helped her get free from a wrongful conviction.

ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. — Former Elizabethton High School students saw the impact Monday of a school project they did together around 4 years ago.

It was hug after hug when California resident Suzanne Johnson met with the students for the first time. They helped Johnson get out of prison 21 years after she was falsely convicted of killing a child and sentenced to life in prison.

"I got all those letters and sat and I thought, 'I have to meet these kids,'" Johnson said during the meeting, part of her road trip to visit family across the country.

It was a project their teacher, Alex Campbell, assigned for a sociology class.

“He was like, ‘We’re going to try to get somebody off death row,’” said Bailey Tyree, a former student. “And I was like, ‘For real? Are you serious?’”

The students researched more than 100 potential options before picking Johnson together.

“We really felt like she was innocent, so we wanted to work on that,” said Jacey Fair, another former student. “We contacted the governor of California. We sent him emails. We called him. We wrote to her. We reached out to news channels and things. We just did a lot of stuff the whole semester.”

Fair said different groups of students focused on researching the case, new medical developments and the legal system. Johnson was still in prison when the class ended in 2018, but around 2 years later, she was set free.

Monday night, she spent 2 hours with what she calls her Tennessee family.

“I knew these two were going to college,” Johnson said of some of the students.

“I’m just going to college,” one student said.

“It looks like he could get into trouble,” Johnson interjected, as the crowd laughed.

The project is inspiring career paths. Tyree is in pre-law now.

“I’m interested in doing this again,” she said. “Getting involved with somebody on death row or somebody who’s going to spend life in prison, and have the opportunity to get them out also.”

“She could actually get out of prison," said Fair. I was 15 years old and I impacted that and I helped her do that. It makes me realize you can do anything you want.”

“I cried for hours because it was so beautiful,” Johnson said. “Now I’m getting teary again. All these beautiful letters from people who cared and believed. That’s a big thing in prison when somebody says, ‘I believe in you,’ so that meant a lot to me.”

This story was originally reported by WCYB.


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