Archived Story

Lawmaker: Emily’s Law will not die in 2011

Published 9:43am Friday, February 11, 2011

When Rep. Torrey Westrom woke up and put on the news Thursday, the top two stories dealt with juveniles and the crimes of murder. One had to do with a gang initiation in Minneapolis. The other, a St. Louis Park teen who slayed people at convenience stores in Iowa.

That was ironic, Westrom said, because later that morning he would be standing before the Minnesota House’s Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee introducing a bill that would change how Minnesota punishes juvenile offenders who commit severe crimes.

Westrom reintroduced “Emily’s Law” at the House on Thursday. It’s a bill making it’s fifth appearance before the Legis-lature after 2-year-old Emily Johnson was sexually assaulted and killed in 2006 by the 13-year-old son of her daycare operator Deborah Koenig. Because the boy was 19 days shy of his 14th birthday, his case was handled in juvenile court and he received a penalty that Emily’s parents Lynn and Travis Johnson believe was too lenient.

For five years the Johnsons have traveled to St. Paul working to change the juvenile justice system that today projects some juvenile offenders who commit heinous crimes.

Committee Chairman Tony Cornish (R-Lake Crystal) vowed to work hard to make sure that Emily’s Law doesn’t die in committee.

“My intention is to move forward and not let it die again,” Cornish said of Emily’s Law.

In setting the tone for the hearing, Westrom said it was time to re-examine age 14 being the age that a juvenile can be certified as an adult. In a proposal before the committee, that certification age would be changed to 10. Thirteen states already have set the minimum certification age younger than 14, said Lynn Johnson, Emily’s mother.

“The Otter Tail District Attorney and the Johnsons’ hands were tied in 2006, Westrom said. “They could not petition the court that the juvenile offender be certified as an adult,” Westrom said.

“It’s time to get our arms around this and not let any other family feel the injustice that the Johnsons have felt,” he said.

The committee listened to about two hours of testimony and indicated greater interest in reviewing the juvenile justice system for possible changes. The consensus seemed to be that something needs to be changed with the juvenile justice system — and that might be the juvenile justice system as a whole.

Lynn Johnson shared testimony about the events of June 16, 2006 when she got a call from Deborah Koenig that Emily would not wake up and 911 had been called.

“When I dropped off Emily at daycare little did I know that it would be the last time I saw my daughter smile,” she said.

If the details of the crime that caused Emily’s death weren’t bad enough, Lynn Johnson says their nightmare continued when they learned the Koenig boy could not be punished or held accountable for his actions because of his age.

“Why is our daughter lying in the ground while her killer continues on with his life with minimal interruption?” Johnson asked the committee. “Something must change so others don’t feel the injustice our family has.”

Johnson said she proposes that the Legislature look at each case individually and assess the mitigating factors before the court on a case-by-case basis. Every case is different and each should be handled differently, she said.

Travis Johnson addressed some of the opposition that Emily’s law has faced before the Legislature the past four years — mainly testimony that teens might not know their actions are wrong because experts say their brains are not fully developed until their mid to late 20s.

“Let’s think about that a minute,” Travis Johnson said. “How young were your children when you began disciplining them?”

“They were pretty young. Weren’t they? And they understood, didn’t they?”

“Don’t throw food on the floor. Don’t run with scissors. Don’t throw sand at your brother. Don’t hit your sister. Do you really believe that even the youngest child doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong?” he asked.

And why do kids lie to cover something up or blame it on someone else?

“It’s because they’re very much aware that they did something wrong,” Travis Johnson said.

“Do you really believe that a 13-year-old doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong? How many 13-year-olds do you know who have assaulted someone to the point of death?”

“Imagine Emily, a defenseless 24-pound 2-year-old, left lying unconscious when he walked away when he so easily could have told an adult what he had done. The adult could have attempted to get her medical attention,” he said.

Travis Johnson said he’ll never be convinced that the Koenig boy, just 19 days short of his 14th birthday, didn’t know what he was doing was wrong. “That’s plain ludicrous and I’ll never believe he didn’t realize what he did was wrong,” he said.

Johnson pointed out that soldiers are sent to Iraq as early as 18-years-old, teens are issued driving permits at age 15. Kids can get snowmobile and ATV permits at age 12 and begin taking firearms safety classes at age 11 so they can carry guns.

“If they get adult-like privileges than they should be able to receive adult-like punishments,” Travis Johnson said.

Rep Linda Slocum (D-Richfield) was among many lawmakers who saw a reform of the juvenile justice system as an appropriate means of action — not a change in the age that a juvenile can be charged as an adult.

“Lowering the age from 14 is like putting a Bandaid on a system that needs reform,” Slocum said. “The system seems to be broken and we need to look at real reform.”

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