msnbc.com news services
updated 6/10/2011 8:24:06 AM ET 2011-06-10T12:24:06

A 5-year-old girl could face murder charges after a toddler was drowned in a bathtub, police said.

Kansas City police are waiting for a medical examiner's report on how 18-month-old Jermane Johnson Jr., died, but have investigated the death as a homicide, spokesman Darin Snapp said Thursday.

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

Johnson was in a Kansas City house on June 3 with other children, but the 16-year-old girl who was supposed to be looking after them fell asleep, Snapp said.

'She got angry'
Investigators learned through interviews that a 5-year-old girl in the house became irritated at the boy, Snapp said.

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

Police said the 5-year-old was not arrested, and the case was referred to the Jackson County's family courts division.

Snapp said a decision on how to handle the case will be left up to prosecutors after the medical examiner's report is released.

Local media reported that authorities said the two children were cousins.

Juvenile justice experts expressed shock that police said they were treating the death as a potential homicide.

The case raises complicated legal questions about how a court could proceed against such a young suspect.

Intent?
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 5-year-old is incapable of forming intent, and likely wouldn't even know what drowning means.

"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."

Police originally ruled the death accidental, but said that changed after social workers reported that the girl told them she brought the toddler into the bathroom and drowned him.

The children had been left along with others under the supervision of a teenager while an adult in the home went to pick up the father of the 18-month-old, Snapp said. He said the father had recently arrived in Kansas City to take the infant back to their home in St. Louis. It was unclear how long the adult was out of the home.

Mary Jacobi, a spokeswoman for the Jackson County Court, said she could not comment on the girl's current whereabouts.

"We cannot speak at all to the child's current living arrangement," she said.

Mental health evaluation
She said in an email that the Missouri Children's Division had been notified and that a juvenile officer involved in the case had filed a petition for a child in need of care for the 5-year-old. Such a petition would allow the court to determine what services the child needs.

Seth Bundy, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Social Services, said the department could not comment on the case, as did Debra Walker, spokeswoman for the state Department of Mental Health.

In Missouri, a child has to be 12 years old before he or she can be certified to stand trial, said Vivian Murphy, executive director of the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association. Murphy, who said she was not involved with the Kansas City case, said in general, a child in such a situation would undergo a mental health evaluation and that there would be an investigation into the child's living situation.

"It's all about what's best for the 5-year-old," she said. "The family court in Kansas City is going to do a good job of just looking at the circumstances holistically with the 5-year-old and looking at their environment and look at what's going on."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments