KANSAS CITY — The man convicted of killing and beheading a 3-year-old girl, who was known only as "Precious Doe" for years, was sentenced Thursday to life in prison without parole.
Before being sentenced, Harrell Johnson decried the justice system and continued to proclaim his innocence in the killing of Erica Green, the daughter of his then-girlfriend, in 2001.
"Never once have I harmed a hair on her head or did anything to hurt her," Johnson said. "God knows my little angel — Erica — knows the truth. And I ain't gonna stop fighting until I prove my innocence and the truth is brought to the light."
Johnson, 29, was convicted last month of first-degree murder, endangering the welfare of a child and abuse of a child. Jurors believed the account that prosecutors and Erica's mother gave: Johnson kicked the girl in the head and left her to die on the bedroom floor of a Kansas City house where they were staying.
Johnson then decapitated the child's body and dumped it in woods in an attempt to hide the crime, according to testimony and prosecutors' arguments.
Life without parole was the only possible sentence that Jackson County Circuit Judge John Torrence could hand down for the murder charge.
"Erica's nightmare's over. Yours is just beginning," Torrence told Johnson.
Prosecutors did not seek the death penalty for the murder, partly because Johnson agreed to withdraw his request to have the case moved out of Kansas City. For the other charges, Torrence followed the jury's recommendations and sentenced Johnson to four years for the endangerment and 25 years for the abuse. The sentences will run consecutively.
"I was convicted from the start in the eyes of the community and the (judicial) system, and I didn't get a fair trial," Johnson told the judge and others inside the courtroom Thursday. "I gotta live with this for the rest of my life — being accused of something like this (against) someone that I love. ... I was there for all of my children and Erica as well."
Torrence said he believed the three-day trial in early October was handled fairly. He said he backed the jury's guilty verdict, which was reached after about three hours of deliberations.
The judge told Johnson that it was obvious he would never take responsibility for Erica's death.
"It's apparent to me that you are a textbook sociopath," Torrence said. "You simply don't have the ability to understand, recognize or feel the pain and suffering of others.
"You took the life of an innocent child. And for no reason other than your own selfish desire to avoid being arrested, you watched Erica suffer for hour after hour and die," he said. "You waited for nightfall and, under the cover of darkness, you committed the unspeakable act of cutting off her head with a pair of hedge clippers."
Michelle Johnson, the mother of Erica who was dating Harrell Johnson at the time of the killing, was sentenced last month to 25 years in prison for the murder. She testified against Johnson, whom she married after the child's death, at his trial.
The 33-year-old mother testified that Johnson was high on drugs and kicked Erica because the child wouldn't go to bed. The woman said she and Johnson didn't seek medical help for Erica for fear of going to jail on outstanding warrants in other cases.
Harrell Johnson's lawyers at trial argued that he didn't deliberately cause the child's death. But a pediatric neurosurgeon, called by prosecutors to testify, said doctors probably could have reversed the damage if the couple had quickly sought medical attention for the girl.
Erica went unidentified for four years after her remains were found. Community members affectionately nicknamed her "Precious Doe" and kept attention on the case.
In 2005, activist Alonzo Washington received a tip from Harrell Johnson's grandfather in Muskogee, Okla., that helped break the case. Johnson and Erica's mother had lived in Muskogee before the killing and moved back there after Erica died.
When Kansas City police charged the couple with the killing, they were already in custody in Oklahoma on charges unrelated to the murder.
Johnson said Thursday that police who took a statement from him about the murder charge physically coerced him. Johnson's lawyers raised the same allegations before the trial when trying to keep the statement out of court. The judge decided to let jurors hear what Johnson told police.
Prosecutor Jim Kanatzar said Johnson's allegations are "totally without merit."
"Everything that was important in this case came out in the evidence at trial," Kanatzar said after the sentencing. "That's what mattered and that's what pointed to the truth."
One of Johnson's lawyers, Kent Hall, said the defense will appeal. He declined to comment further.