On December 5, 2013, following a jury trial in Ingham County Circuit Court, John Sanders was convicted of first-degree murder and child abuse. The conviction stemmed from the January 4, 2013, death of his infant daughter, Ja’Nayjah. The prosecution relied on expert testimony indicating that abusive shaking or trauma were the only possible cause for Ja'Nayjah's death. Mr. Sanders was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The Michigan Innocence Clinic began reviewing the case in 2016. The Clinic retained two leading medical experts to review the medical evidence. Those two experts were Dr. Michael Laposata, the head of the Department of Pathology at the University of Texas Medical Branch, and Dr. Erin Barnhart, a forensic pathologist and the chief medical examiner in Galveston County, Texas. Upon reviewing the medical evidence in this case, Dr. Barnhart specifically ruled out the possibility that this case could be classified as homicide, and she concluded that the “only supported manner of death in this case is natural.” She made clear that “[a]ll of the findings in this case are explained by [an underlying infection and its byproducts],” and that there was “no evidence” indicating that Ja’Nayjah was a victim of abuse.
Dr. Laposta agreed that this was not a case of abuse and Ja’Nayjah’s demise stemmed from: “[S]trep B infection that led to acute bronchopneumonia, ‘which led to the development of DIC [that] . . . was severe enough to produce severe and spontaneous bleeding.’” Dr. Laposata also noted that the scalp hemorrhages in Ja’Nayjah’s autopsy were likely not caused by abuse, but instead likely stemmed from medical intervention. He noted that there were no external signs of trauma during the initial exam in the emergency room.
After hearing this testimony at an evidentiary hearing in 2022, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina vacated Mr. Sanders's conviction and granted him a new trial. The judge summarized the new medical evidence as follows: “Simply put, the victim’s death was caused by an infection, not abusive trauma.” Thus, she wrote:
"These new medical opinions cast serious doubt on the actual guilt of Defendant. As such, Dr. Barnhart and Dr. Laposata’s testimony at trial would have likely exonerated Defendant. Not only do these experts undermine the People’s evidence of guilt, they also present compelling evidence that the victim died from natural causes."