5-Year-Old Could Face Murder Charge in Drowning Death of Crying Toddler

Police trying to determine whether to charge girl with homicide.

June 10, 2011, 12:05 PM

June 10, 2011 -- Kansas City police are trying to determine whether to charge a 5-year-old girl with murder after she admitted that she dragged a crying toddler into a bathtub and held him under water until he stopped crying.

"I've been in law enforcement for 20 years and it's the youngest suspect I can remember," police spokesman Darin Snapp said. "It's extremely rare."

The girl, who is not being identified because of her age, was left with 18-month-old Jermane Johnson Jr. on June 3 along with two other children and a 16-year-old girl who was supposed to be looking after them. The teenager had fallen asleep, police said.

Police originally ruled the death an accident, but it turned into a potential homicide investigation after the 5-year-old told social workers that she held 18-month-old Johnson under water to stop his crying.

"She said she got angry because he would not stop crying and she held him under the water until he stopped crying," Snapp said.

She told social workers that she dragged Johnson into the tub, still full of water from when the children took baths earlier that evening, police said.

Police were called to the drowning just before midnight Friday, when the adults returned home and found the boy dead.

"As of right now yes, from her statement, she is a possible suspect," Snapp said.

Snapp said a final decision on how to handle the case will be made by prosecutors after the medical examiner's report is released, a process that could take up to eight weeks.

The victim's family has taken to Facebook to express its grief and issue a plea for donations in the infant's honor.

The boy's father, Jermane Johnson Sr.,wrote on his Facebook wall, "Please help me give my son a proper burial," alongside information directing followers to the memorial account set up in his son's honor.

"I just got asked the hardest question that no parent should never answer. What kind of caskets do I want to put my son in," he wrote.

Will 5-Year-Old Girl Be Charged With Murder for Drowning Crying Toddler

The highly unusual case was referred to the Jackson County's family courts division and the girl has not been arrested, but she remains a person of interest to police.

Officials are also looking into the welfare of other children in the home and the decision to leave the children alone Friday, according to Snapp. The 16-year-old left in charge of the children reportedly had mental disabilities.

Police said Johnson lived in the St. Louis area but had been cared for by relatives in Kansas City for several weeks. The 5-year-old girl is a relative of Johnson's, although officials said it was unclear exactly how.

An adult left the children in the care of the teenager in order to travel to a bus station to pick up a relative who had come to take Johnson back to St. Louis.

The ABC News affiliate in Kansas City, KMBC-9, spoke to neighbors near the red-brick home where the drowning occurred, one of whom said the family was nice, but that she had experienced troubles with the young girl prior to the drowning.

"She would throw rocks and sticks at them," neighbor Patricia Lewis told KMBC, referring to her small dogs. "They'd get real upset with her."

Others expressed sadness that the death occurred, and horror that a 5-year-old may now face charges.

Possible Murder Charges for 5-Year-Old Who Drowned Crying Toddler

"It's a sad thing for something like that to happen to a young child, it really is," said Katie Marshall, another neighbor. "We have to watch our children more carefully."

Bart Lubow, the director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national child advocacy organization based in Baltimore, said a large part of the case, should the girl be charged, would focus on whether the 5-year-old was capable of even forming intent or knowing what drowning meant, something he argued is not possible.

"You can imagine a child responding to other children's crying by saying, 'I know how to stop that.' But the notion that there was intent there is silly," Lubow said. "For a 5-year-old, this is well beyond the pale of what our criminal or delinquency laws are intended to address."

He said the case should proceed with a "very child-centered approach."

The young suspect is now in the care of the Jackson County Court, but officials would not comment on whether the girl was back home with her family or in foster care.

"We cannot speak at all to the child's current living arrangement," said Mary Jacobi, a spokeswoman for the court.

According to Johnson Sr.'s Facebook wall, memorial services for his son, Jermane, will be held on Monday, June 13, in St. Louis.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this story.

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