Monday, April 16, 2012

Statement by mom of missing AZ baby can’t be used

PHOENIX — Jurors won’t get to hear a statement by the mother of a missing Arizona baby in which authorities say she told a police detective that she killed the boy in Texas, a judge ruled Monday.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Paul McMurdie issued the ruling regarding the upcoming trial of Elizabeth Johnson, 25, saying her constitutional rights were violated when a San Antonio detective interviewed her in a Phoenix jail without her attorneys being there or even knowing about the interview.

“It was inappropriate, and I would go so far as to say an un-American-type of thing to do,” Johnson’s attorney, Marc Victor, told reporters after the hearing, which Johnson chose not to attend. “This is a real slap in the face of the Constitution and our justice system.”

A San Antonio police spokesman did not immediately return a call for comment about the ruling.

McMurdie declined a request by the lawyer to dismiss all the charges based on the constitutional violation.

Johnson has pleaded not guilty to child abuse, kidnapping and custodial interference in the case of her missing son, 8-month-old Gabriel.

Investigators said Johnson drove the boy to San Antonio from Tempe in December 2009, stayed about a week then took a bus to Florida without him. She was arrested Dec. 30 in Florida and returned to Arizona.

Gabriel has never been found, and police still don’t know if he’s dead or alive.

During an hourslong interview with San Antonio police Detective Jesse Salame in a Phoenix jail, Johnson said she killed Gabriel, authorities have said.

Victor said Salame used coercion to get Johnson to make the statement and that his tactics included getting her shackles removed, comforting her throughout the interview by patting her shoulder and leg, and saying that her defense attorneys weren’t looking out for her and didn’t have the same kind of power he did.

Victor also said Salame only recorded parts of the interview and at the time, Johnson was still viewed as mentally unfit. She has since been found competent to stand trial and assist in her own defense.

“This is the kind of thing you would expect to see in a Third-World country,” Victor said. “This is not the kind of thing you would expect to see in the justice system in Arizona.”

Johnson has provided conflicting stories about what happened to Gabriel. Police say she texted the boy’s father that she killed Gabriel and put his body in a trash bin. She later recanted and said that she gave him to a couple in San Antonio.

Johnson’s statement to the boy’s father, Logan McQueary, could be used at her trial.

McQueary, who detectives do not suspect in the boy’s disappearance, also was in court Monday in a separate case. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of theft and was sentenced to a year of probation.

Tammi Peters Smith, a north Scottsdale woman who had been seeking to adopt Gabriel from Johnson, is set to be in court Tuesday for opening statements in her trial on charges of felony forgery and conspiracy to commit custodial interference related to Gabriel.

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