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Couple who 'fled' to New Zealand fight one-year jail sentence over son's death

Seth Johnson, 7, was found dead in his vomit-soaked bed in 2015.

A US couple who allegedly fled to New Zealand following the death of their adopted son have criticised their one-year jail sentence as “excessive”.

Timothy and Sarah Johnson moved across the world with their surviving children just one year after they found their son Seth Johnson, 7, dead in his vomit-soaked bed in their Minnesota home in 2015. The couple were aware of the young boy’s failing health, including bruises and small cracks on his skin, but “had issues going to doctors”, local publications report.

The pair, who preferred to do their own research, told police they increased their son’s vitamin intake and treated his visible wounds with Neosporin and “medical honey”, according to court documents that also claim his death was preventable with proper medication.

Timothy and Sarah Johnson at their virtual sentencing after returning to the US from New Zealand.
Timothy and Sarah Johnson, who reportedly fled to New Zealand after their son's death, requested the court to overturn their jail sentence, calling it an 'injustice'. Source: Fox 9 Minnesota

The Johnsons then prayed for Seth’s health the night before his death. An autopsy later determined Seth’s cause of death was acute pancreatitis and possible sepsis.

Parents return to the US

Nearly two years after his death the couple were charged with gross misdemeanour child neglect, but the family had already settled into their new life thousands of kilometres away in New Zealand. The Johnsons lived in Auckland — where Sarah worked as a children’s ministry director at a church — with their six children until their visa was declined in 2022, Stuff.co.nz reports.

When they returned to the US, the couple pleaded guilty to the charges as part of an agreement that wouldn’t include any further jail time, however it was rejected by the judge, who sentenced each parent to a year behind bars in March this year.

Seth wearing glasses and smiling. Right is the house where his body was found.
Seth Johnson, 7, was found dead in his vomit-soaked bed in 2015. Source: Stuff.co.nz/Fox 9 Minnesota

“We thought we were good people. We thought we were good parents. The reality is we got it wrong,” Timothy said at the time, according to the StarTribune. “The reality is that it was within our abilities to seek medical attention but we chose to wait. We thought we were faced with behavioural issues, not medical ones.”

Couple petition jail sentence

The couple recently petitioned the court, claiming it “abused its discretion” by imposing the year-long sentence, Fox 9 Minnesota reports. The Johnsons deemed it “excessive” and a “manifest injustice”, and requested to withdraw their guilty pleas. They also asked the court to overturn their convictions, however their request has now been denied by the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

Earlier this year, Sarah told the judge the pair “carry the guilt of losing our son every single day” and “wish more than anything” they had made different choices.

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