Tighter rules sought in child murders

First-degree murder charges should be easier to level in child killing cases, a representative says.
Thursday, June 30, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:16 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

Bothered by the difficulty of charging the parents of 3-year-old Erica Green with first-degree murder, House Minority Leader Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, wants to toughen child-abuse homicide laws.

Erica was known as “Precious Doe” for years while Kansas City police struggled to identify her decapitated body, which was found in April 2001 in a wooded area near a church. Her head was found nearby in a trash bag a few days later.

Thanks to the help of a tipster, the girl’s body was finally identified this spring. Harrell Johnson, Erica’s stepfather, and Michelle Johnson, Erica’s mother, were charged with “second-degree felony murder and endangering the welfare of a child,” according to Jackson County Prosecutor Michael Sanders. Sanders said the Johnsons have admitted that Harrell Johnson beat Erica into a coma because she wouldn’t go to sleep.

“They both said he let her suffer for 12-plus hours until she passed away,” Sanders said. “They wanted to hide the body because they didn’t want to be caught.” But Sanders is having trouble charging the Johnsons with first-degree murder, and when Harris learned that, he decided to sponsor legislation next session that would make it easier to level the charge in deaths caused by abuse. First-degree murder carries a punishment of either death or life in prison with no possibility of parole.

“I believe that people like this mother and stepfather that would do something like this to a child should be held accountable for first-degree murder,” Harris said. “We should toughen our homicide laws to protect children and victims of fatal abuse.”

Missouri homicide law requires provable deliberation and intent to kill before first-degree murder can be charged.

“Those are the facts we’re trying to compile” in the Johnsons’ case, Sanders said. “The law calls it ‘cool reflection’ on one’s intent to kill a person. We are attempting to complete the investigation to see if we can charge them with murder in the first (degree).”

Sanders said one possibility for changing first-degree murder law would be “to lower the threshold, where it doesn’t have to be cool reflection; it could be changed to a heinous crime.”

Sanders said a second problem with state law deals with the duty of adults to report child abuse. Current state law requires only parents, legal guardians and mandatory reporters, such as medical and law enforcement officials, to report any abuse they witness. Sanders said other adults that see abuse and live in the household should be held responsible. He said there were other adults living in the Johnson home at the time Erica was abused.

“There’s not a loophole, there’s a gaping hole in the law,” Sanders said. “Unless you are a mandatory reporter, the parents or a legal guardian, you are under no obligation to report anything you see. We should all be good Samaritans. Children cannot defend themselves.”

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