KANSAS CITY — Prosecutors announced Friday that they won't seek the death penalty for a man accused of killing a 3-year-old girl once known only as "Precious Doe" and that the case will be heard by a Jackson County jury.
Prosecutors previously had said they planned to seek the death penalty for Harrell Johnson, 28, of Muskogee, Okla.
But Jackson County Prosecutor Jim Kanatzar said Friday that the case doesn't meet necessary standards. He also said he made the decision in part because Johnson agreed to withdraw his request for a change of venue, which had been granted earlier. A St. Louis jury was going to be brought to Kansas City to hear the case, which is scheduled to begin Oct. 6.
"I believe it's extremely important for the people of Jackson County, Mo., to sit on the jury and decide this case," Kanatzar said during a news conference Friday.
Johnson is charged with first-degree murder in the 2001 death of Erica Green. If convicted, the only possible sentence would be life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Erica's decapitated body, and later her head, were found in a wooded area of Kansas City. The child was dubbed "Precious Doe" while she remained unidentified until 2005.
Prosecutors plan to argue for first-degree murder based on Johnson's alleged decision to not seek medical care for the child after she had been beaten, Kanatzar said. That aspect of first-degree murder by omission has never been considered by a Missouri appeals court, which is one reason why he decided not to seek the death penalty, he said.
"In other words we're plowing new ground," he said.
Kenton Hall, Johnson's attorney, said the defense team offered the exchange of withdrawing the change of venue for removing the death penalty a couple of weeks ago.
"We are very happy to have the specter of the death penalty removed," he said. "We never felt the death penalty was appropriate."
Johnson and his wife, Michelle Johnson, 32, were arrested in Muskogee after police received a tip from a family member linking them to the death.
Michelle Johnson pleaded guilty earlier and agreed to testify against her husband.
Community activist Alonzo Washington, who worked to keep the case before the public and frequently criticized police during the investigation, spoke at Kanatzar's news conference, saying he agreed with the decision to withdraw the death penalty even though it might provoke a "fallout in the community."
"I am not disappointed at all because I was the person from the very beginning saying that life in prison would be a just punishment for him," Washington said. "Now, there is blood lust for this man in the community."
Hall said he was not concerned about a Jackson County jury being able to decide the case on its merits.
"I believe Jackson County residents are intelligent and fair and will reach the right decision," he said.