KANSAS CITY — Jurors began deliberating the case Wednesday of a man accused of kicking a 3-year-old girl in the head, waiting hours without seeking help while she died, then decapitating the girl and dumping her body.
During closing arguments, Jackson County prosecutors told jurors that Harrell Johnson, 29, of Muskogee, Okla., killed Erica Green, the daughter of his girlfriend at the time, by kicking her in the head in 2001 and failing to seek medical help.
"This selfish coward made the decision to put himself before this 3-year-old child's life," said prosecutor Jim Kanatzar.
Johnson is charged with first-degree murder, endangering the welfare of a child, abuse of a child resulting in death and abuse of a child. If convicted of the murder charge, Johnson would be sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Defense attorney Chris Slusher told the jury that Johnson didn't know the girl would die. He said prosecutors haven't proven that Johnson is guilty of deliberately intending her death.
"It's our position to you that the evidence in this case has not established that Harrell Johnson intended or deliberately meant for Erica Green to die," Slusher said.
A police officer found Erica's naked, headless body in a wooded area of Kansas City in April 2001. Lacking an identity, she was known only as "Precious Doe" until 2005, when a community activist received a tip from Johnson's grandfather in Muskogee, Okla., where he lived with Erica's mother, whom he married a year after the girl's death.
Slusher urged jurors to base their decision on the law and the evidence, and not the community's attachment to the case.
"The state says to you that you are the community today. Well, you really aren't the community today in a sense," Slusher said. "You are a jury that has been entrusted to uphold justice.
Johnson's trial began Monday in Jackson County Circuit Court, and prosecutors completed their presentation Tuesday with testimony from Johnson's wife, Michelle Johnson, and a videotaped confession by the defendant.
Kanatzar pointed out that in the confession, Harrell Johnson told detectives that after he kicked the girl, he was afraid. Kanatzar said Johnson's fear was more out of concern for himself than the child.
"The defendant is scared because he knows he has put Erica's life in serious danger," the prosecutor said. "And the defendant is scared because he knows every second, every minute, every hour that passes without medical help for Erica is a second, a minute, an hour closer to her death.
"The defendant is scared because he knows he's got to make a choice. And it's a choice he doesn't want to have to make but it's there for him - a deliberate choice. He can either call for help and save her life. But if he does, he's going to go to jail."
Michelle Johnson, 33, pleaded guilty last year to second-degree murder in Erica's death.
Slusher told jurors that the mother was just as responsible for what happened to the girl, yet she avoided a first-degree murder charge.
She testified Tuesday that Harrell Johnson was high on drugs when he kicked Erica at the Kansas City home where they were staying. She said she knew the girl would die but that they didn't seek medical help for fear of being arrested on outstanding warrants.
A pediatric neurosurgeon testified Monday that if the couple had quickly sought medical attention for Erica, doctors probably could have reversed the damage.
Prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty, partly because Johnson agreed to withdraw his request to have the case moved out of Kansas City.