Woman sentenced to 30 years in death of child
By Ruth Ann Krause Post-Tribune correspondent July 29, 2013 4:22PM
Updated: August 31, 2013 6:25AM
Rochell Johnson stood at the podium before Lake Superior Court Judge Clarence Murray and cried as she read a letter of apology related to the death of 5-year-old Leon Walker.
“I’m so sorry for what happened to Leon,” she said as tears rolled down her cheeks. “I wish I would have reacted differently to the situation.”
Murray imposed a 30-year sentence, with five years suspended and served on probation.
Johnson, 35, admitted she failed to get medical help for the child, the son of her then-boyfriend, Leon D. Burns, after the child was beaten for a full day and bound by his hands and feet. Johnson, who was living with Burns and their children at a home at 3974 Virginia St., Gary, admitted she knew the child had been beaten on April 28, 2010 and that his hands and feet had been tied for so long the boy couldn’t feel his extremities.
Six days before his sixth birthday, little Leon begged for help, but Johnson admitted she did nothing to give him assistance or free him.
Defense attorney Derrick Julkes presented testimony from clinical neuropsychologist Michael Gelbort, who looked at Johnson’s intellectual functioning, ability to cope and adapt to situations and to solve problems. Gelbort said Johnson’s IQ is 72, which he described as “painfully close” to being mentally retarded. Johnson struggles with thinking on her feet in difficult situations, he said.
“If she is in a situation where things are happening quickly and there is not a clear path through the minefield, she is likely to wander off,” Gelbort said. He found that she didn’t seem to be an aggressive person.
Deputy prosecutor Aleksandra Dimitrijevic elicited testimony that Gelbort had spent an estimated six hours speaking with Johnson and never spoke with any of Johnson’s five children, reviewed any Child Protective Services documents relating to her treatment of them or talked with police or other family members.
Julkes pointed to testimony from Johnson’s half-sister that Johnson is a loving, God-fearing person who loves her children. When questioned by Dimitrijevic, Sherry Brooks of Atlanta said she didn’t know Johnson’s children’s names and had seen Johnson twice in the last 10 years.
Dimitrijevic described Johnson as cold-hearted by allowing Leon Walker to die. She told her own son to “just ignore him” as Leon screamed for help, according to the boy’s sworn testimony.
Julkes argued that his client lacked the mental capability to make quick decisions and countered that no CPS records were in evidence that she had harmed her own children.
Murray, who viewed photographs of the boy’s battered body, said: “In my 20 years on the bench, they’re the worst I’ve ever seen. There’s barely an inch on that child’s body that doesn’t have a bruise or a scratch.”
Burns, 31, has pleaded not guilty. He will be back in court in September. He faces life without parole if convicted.