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'Precious Doe' trial under way

Monday, October 6, 2008 | 2:53 p.m. CDT; updated 5:08 p.m. CDT, Monday, October 6, 2008

KANSAS CITY — The man accused of murdering a 3-year-old girl nicknamed "Precious Doe" after her headless body was found in the woods didn't mean to kill her when he kicked her in the head, a defense attorney told jurors Monday.

In his opening statement, defense lawyer Kenton Hall admitted that Harrell Johnson kicked his girlfriend's daughter, Erica Green. But Hall said it was not the premeditated act necessary for first-degree murder, the charge Johnson faces.

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"Erica Green died of a single, traumatic blow to the head; a blow that was forceful and reckless and out of control but was not intended to kill," Hall said.

Special prosecutor Tim Dollar told jurors that Erica fell and hit her head after Johnson, 29, of Muskogee, Okla., kicked the girl for refusing to go to bed. Dollar said Johnson, along with the girl's mother, Michelle Johnson, did not seek medical help as Erica lay dying for nearly 10 hours, instead trying to revive her with a cold bath and even attempting to feed her with an eyedropper.

"The defendant and Michelle decided that they would not call for help for little Erica because the defendant and Michelle were 'on the run' from the police and neither this defendant nor Michelle wanted to go to jail," Dollar said.

Prosecutors claim the couple eventually took the girl's body out of the house and that Johnson decapitated her and dumped the body in the woods.

Hall cautioned jurors that the decapitation didn't cause the girl's death and was meant only to hide her identity.

"You are here to judge what happened before that moment," he said.

The girl's headless body was discovered in a wooded Kansas City park area in 2001, and a volunteer searcher found her head several days later.

Dollar told jurors that police had hoped that media reports about the body being found would coax the girl's parents to come forward or file a missing person's report. They even worked up artists' renderings of what the girl may have looked like.

But "no call comes and no report comes," Dollar said. "Instead, Kansas City's long nightmare has begun."

For four years, the case haunted residents who longed to know the identity of the girl they had nicknamed "Precious Doe" and who could have killed her in such horrific fashion.

Erica was identified in 2005 through a tip given to a community activist who was among those who kept attention on the case. Johnson and the girl's mother, who had married a year after Erica's death, were arrested in Oklahoma.

Michelle Johnson pleaded guilty to second-degree murder last year and agreed to testify against her husband.

Besides the first-degree murder charge, Harrell Johnson also faces charges of endangering the welfare of a child, abuse of a child resulting in death and abuse of a child.

On Monday, Kansas City police officer Jason Rusley testified about finding the girl's decapitated body while looking for an elderly man who had wandered from his home.

Rusley said he thought he saw a dog or a toy lying in the bushes off a gravel road and took a closer look.

"I said a gasp and 'Oh, no,'" he said. "You could tell it was the body of a young child."

Crime scene technicians Diane Lutman and Melissa Thompson also testified about collecting evidence around the body and, later, the head, which was found wrapped in two garbage bags about two blocks away.

The trial is expected to last about a week. If convicted of first-degree murder, the only possible sentence for Harrell Johnson would be life in prison without parole. Prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty, partly because Johnson agreed to withdraw his request to have the case moved out of Kansas City.


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