Kansas City Mo. Prosecutors can seek the death penalty against a man accused of killing his stepdaughter, a judge ruled Friday, even though they first told the man they wouldn't pursue a capital murder charge.
In a hearing earlier this month in Jackson County Circuit Court, public defenders for Harrell L. Johnson argued that Jackson County Prosecutor Mike Sanders had told them and another judge that he would not seek to have Johnson executed if he were convicted of the 2001 killing of 3-year-old Erica Green, who was known for years only as Precious Doe.
But in December, Sanders said new information had led him to pursue the death penalty. Because Sanders had not formally waived the right to do so, Circuit Judge J.D. Williamson ruled, the change in course was allowable.
"The consternation of the Defendant, his family and counsel at being informally advised that the death penalty would not be sought, and later having to deal with the Prosecutor formally and publicly announcing the contrary, is understandable and unfortunate," Williamson wrote in his ruling. "However, this case was and is in its early stages. : Therefore, there is no prejudice to the Defendant being able to adequately prepare his defense in this matter."
One of the state's three capital defense units will take over Johnson's representation within the next few weeks, public defender Bill Raymond said.
"Obviously, he was upset - as was I - and greatly disappointed," Raymond said. "The prosecutor assigned to the case, and the lead prosecutor in Jackson County, both informed the court that they don't believe the facts of the case support the death penalty, but they are now allowed to seek the death penalty."
Assistant prosecutor Tim Dollar said he had expected Williamson to rule as he did.
"It follows precedent and the law," Dollar said. "What this means is that some of the first procedural issues are behind us, and we can now begin to focus on substantive issues in the case."
The headless body of the little girl was discovered in 2001 in a Kansas City park. A volunteer searcher found her head several days later, but it was not until 2005 that she was identified and charges were filed.
Johnson, 26, of Muskogee, Okla., is charged with first-degree murder. Prosecutors allege he was high on drugs when he kicked Erica, threw her down and left her to die before decapitating her body and dumping it. His wife, Michelle Johnson, 30, is charged with second-degree murder.
Also Friday, Williamson set a scheduling hearing for March 10.