Kansas City, Mo. The mother of a young girl known for years as "Precious Doe" pleaded guilty Thursday to second-degree murder in the death of her 3-year-old daughter, whose decapitated remains were found in a city park and left unidentified for four years.
Michelle Johnson, 32, of Muskogee, Okla., also pleaded guilty to child endangerment, abandoning a corpse and tampering with evidence. She admitted that she knew her daughter, Erica, was badly injured but did nothing to help her as she lay dying after allegedly being abused by her stepfather.
As part of the plea agreement, Johnson agreed to testify against her husband, Harrell Johnson, in February, when he is scheduled to go on trial for first-degree murder, assistant prosecutor Tim Dollar said. Prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty.
In exchange for Michelle Johnson's plea, prosecutors will recommend she serve a total of 25 years, Dollar said. If she had gone to trial and been convicted of second-murder, Johnson could have been sentenced to life in prison.
During the hearing, a teary-eyed Johnson admitted that she saw Harrell Johnson kick Erica in the head at a Kansas City apartment on April 28, 2001, and knew that she should call for medical help, but didn't.
She also acknowledged that she helped put the child's body in a park and moved part of the body to throw off investigators.
Johnson's trial had been scheduled to start Jan. 22, but now she is scheduled to be sentenced by Judge John O'Malley on March 20, 2008.
Prosecutors allege Harrell Johnson, also of Muskogee, Okla., was high on drugs when he kicked Erica because she wouldn't go to bed. They allege the couple left the girl dying for about 10 hours, then later decapitated her body and dumped her in a Kansas City park.
Erica's body was discovered in 2001, and her head was found several days later. The child was dubbed "Precious Doe," and activists kept attention on her case until the Johnsons were arrested and she was identified in May 2005.
The Johnsons were arrested in Muskogee after Kansas City police got a tip from Harrell Johnson's grandfather linking them to Erica's death.
After the hearing, Jackson County Prosecutor Jim Kanatzar said it was clear that two people were responsible for the "horrific" case. But he held Harrell Johnson most culpable and said Michelle Johnson's testimony would be critical to a successful prosecution of her husband.
Community leader Alvin Brooks said the child's death outraged the community and the nation because she was "a baby who was thrown away like an animal, maybe less than that," and no one claimed her for nearly four years.
Brooks said Michelle Johnson's plea brought some healing, but "this wound will always be opened."
Michelle Johnson, also known as Michelle Pierce, was serving prison time in Oklahoma for larceny when Erica was born in 1997, reports show. The child almost immediately went into the care of foster mother Betty Brown and remained there until Michelle Johnson took her to Kansas City while looking for work.
A funeral was held for the child in December 2001, drawing hundreds of people who didn't even know the little girl's name. Her body was exhumed in July 2003 so experts could make a lifelike bust of what she may have looked like. She was buried a second time in Kansas City.
Activist Alonzo Washington, who worked to keep the case before the public and frequently criticized police during the investigation, said he still hears about Erica wherever he goes.
"This is the one case that made us all care about a homicide," Washington said. "To see that justice was served at some level is a real moment."