Father pleads guilty to abuse

35-year-old admits he may have been `too forceful' with son

Sentenced to 40 months

February 12, 2002|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

A 36-year-old North Laurel man who admitted harming his 3-month-old son, causing an injury that one expert said likely resulted from violent shaking, pleaded guilty to child abuse yesterday and was sentenced to three years, four months in prison.

Before Howard County Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney imposed the sentence, Manuel Johnson Jr. apologized for what his lawyer called an "act of frustration." Johnson's son, Spencer, now 2, spent several weeks in hospitals after the incident on March 17, 2000.

"I care about him. I love him. I miss him. I want to be an active part of his life sometime in the future," said Johnson, who agreed to plead guilty as part of a binding agreement with prosecutors.

Sweeney sentenced Johnson to nine years in prison, suspending all but 40 months, and placed him on three years of supervised probation.

The Johnson case is among a handful of child abuse cases involving shaking or impact injuries to the head -- or a combination of both -- in Howard County over the past few years.

Three babies -- 8-month-old Victoria Dobbin, 9-day-old Raven Rozier and 15-month-old Alexa Shearer -- died from the abuse.

Spencer survived his injuries. Johnson's public defender, Samuel Truette, said yesterday that the child, who lives with his mother, is developmentally delayed and has health problems.

But, he said, it is "unclear" how much of that can be linked to abuse. The boy had health problems before the incident, Truette said. The boy's mother, Jennifer Young, is "very supportive" of Johnson, he said.

According to a statement of facts read into the record yesterday, paramedics were called to Johnson's home on Livery Lane just before 8:30 a.m. and found Spencer unconscious and struggling to breathe.

The boy was taken first to Laurel Regional Hospital and then to Children's National Medical Center in Washington, where doctors said he was suffering from a subdural hematoma and brain swelling, causing seizures.

An expert later consulted by prosecutors said the boy's injuries were caused by being shaken.

Johnson told detectives that the boy's mother had left for work about an hour and a half before the 911 call. He said Spencer, an asthmatic, was having trouble breathing and had been kicking, crying and screaming, according to the statement. Johnson said he picked up Spencer, changed his diaper and put him on the couch while he made the boy's bottle. He later noticed that Spencer was not breathing, the statement said.

Johnson later told detectives that he might have been "too forceful" with Spencer and that he had "shoved" the boy into the couch, according to the statement of facts.

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