Date: 10/6/2008 10:09 PM
By DAVID TWIDDY
Associated Press Writer
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) _ The man accused of murdering 3-year-old Erica Green kicked her in the head but didn’t mean to kill her, his attorney told a jury Monday in the case of a victim the city mourned for four years only knowing her as “Precious Doe.”
But while Harrell Johnson did kick Erica, his girlfriend’s daughter, that was not the premeditated act necessary for a first-degree murder conviction, defense lawyer Kenton Hall said.
“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 countered that Johnson, 29, of Muskogee, Okla., and the girl’s mother, Michelle Johnson, committed murder by failing to seek medical help as Erica lay dying for hours and possibly days. Instead, the mother tried to revive Erica with a cold bath and even attempted 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.
A pediatric neurosurgeon testified later that if the couple had quickly sought medical attention for Erica, physicians could likely have reversed the damage.
“I think she would have survived,” said Dr. Gregory Hornig, who reviewed records from the girl’s autopsy.
Prosecutors claim that after Erica died, the couple took the girl’s body out of the house and that Harrell Johnson decapitated her with hedge clippers and dumped the body in the woods.
The jurors viewed crime scene and autopsy photos of the girl’s severed head and neck, but Hall cautioned them 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.
Erica’s body was discovered in a wooded Kansas City park area on April 28, 2001, by a Kansas City police officer searching for an elderly man who had wandered from his home.
Police Sgt. Jason Rusley testified Monday that 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.”
A volunteer searcher found her head three days later about two blocks away wrapped in a pair of garbage bags.
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.
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.
Homicide Sgt. David Bernard testified that he initially thought the girl would be identified quickly because of her age. He said the department used numerous drawings and clay busts of the girl’s likeness to drum up leads.
Erica was finally identified in 2005 after Harrell Johnson’s grandfather in Muskogee tipped a Kansas City community activist who had kept the case in the spotlight. 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.
The trial is expected to last about a week. If convicted of first-degree murder, his only possible sentence 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.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.