The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

February 28, 2013

Lawyers: Settlement in 'Precious Doe' lawsuit

From The Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY — A settlement has been reached in the case of an Oklahoma man whose daughter was killed after being returned to her mother, who had given birth to the child while in prison, his attorneys said Thursday.

Larry Green sued two state agencies and a hospital in 2010, five years after a beheaded body founded in a wooded area in Missouri was identified as his daughter, Erica. The child's remains had gone unidentified for years and become known as "Precious Doe."

Erica was born when her mother, Michelle Johnson, and Green were in prison. The child was placed with a family friend but given back to Johnson after she was released from prison. Authorities say Johnson's boyfriend killed Erica, and the couple left the child's body in a wooded area in Kansas City.

Green's attorneys issued a statement saying they had reached a settlement that calls for the Department of Human Services, Department of Corrections and the University of Oklahoma Medical Center, where Erica was born in 1997, to develop procedures to ensure that babies born to prison inmates are referred to DHS for placement in a safe home. The procedures will be known as "Erica's Rule."

"That was the primary goal of this lawsuit," his lawyers, Paul DeMuro and Sarah Poston, said in the statement. "We are grateful that the agencies involved were willing to adopt new policies that, hopefully, will ensure babies of incarcerated mothers are placed in a safe environment."

DHS spokeswoman Sheree Powell said the settlement is primarily an agreement between the corrections department and the hospital, which was dismissed from the original lawsuit.

"This new procedure will just involve the safe placement of a child after the birth," Powell said. "Before, there was no requirement for DOC to notify DHS of births" of children to an inmate.

OU Medical Center spokesman Scott Coppenbarger said he declined comment "because the hospital system was dismissed from the lawsuit." Department of Corrections spokesman Jerry Massie also declined comment.

Green's attorneys didn't return several messages from The Associated Press. No financial terms of the settlement were disclosed.

Court documents show that Erica was first placed into the custody of a family friend and later returned to Johnson and her then-boyfriend, Harrell Johnson, whom she later married. Authorities said the child was taken to Kansas City, where Harrell Johnson fatally kicked the child in the head. Investigators said the couple left the girl's naked body in a wooded area.

Michelle Johnson was later convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison, while Harrell Johnson was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.

Green filed the lawsuit alleging negligence and wrongful death in 2010, asking for unspecified punitive and compensatory damages, attorney's fees and legal expenses.

Erica's remains were identified in 2005, after Harrell Johnson's grandfather reported that he recognized a photo of the child as the daughter of his grandson's girlfriend.