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Appeals decision could drastically reduce punishment in Baby Faith's child abuse case

Christine Johnson is serving a 65-year sentence for injury to a child in what advocates in Jefferson County have called the worst child abuse case they've seen with a surviving victim. (KFDM)

BEAUMONT, Texas (KFDM) - An appeals court ruled Thursday to modify the punishment against a woman sentenced to 65 years for abusing her infant daughter, a decision that could drastically reduce her prison sentence.

Christine Johnson is serving a 65-year sentence for injury to a child in what advocates in Jefferson County have called the worst child abuse case they've seen with a surviving victim.

Johnson is the biological mother to Baby Faith Mason, who is now 3 ½ years old and living with an adopted family. She was an infant who was severely injured in 2013.

But on Thursday, an appeals court in Corpus Christi considering Johnson's challenges to her conviction sent the case back to a Jefferson County district court for a new punishment trial on one of two charges and set the stage for Johnson, now 23, to be imprisoned for less than a third of the time she was previously facing - at most 20 years instead of 65 years.

Ryan and Jamie Matuska are Johnson's attorneys.

When we reached out to Jamie Matuska on Thursday evening, she told us they were "pleased with the court's favorable ruling."

"The Court of Appeals ruled in Christine's favor on Count II and reversed her 65-year sentence," Jamie Matuska wrote to us through email. "The court remanded the case for a new punishment trial on a lesser-included offense limited to a 10-year punishment.
"Reversal of a 65-year sentence doesn't happen every day. "

The appeals court upheld Johnson's conviction and 20-year sentence on one count of injury to a child, which was supposed to run at the same time as the 65-year sentence.

The maximum punishment for a third-degree felony is 10 years, which would run at the same time as the 20-year sentence.

Prosecutors could challenge the Corpus Christi court's decision with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin, or ask the Corpus Christi court to reconsider.

Wayln Thompson, the appellate chief at the Jefferson County District Attorney's Office, said Friday morning that he was still reviewing the court's ruling.

We also spoke with District Attorney Bob Wortham on Friday morning. He had just learned of the ruling.

Here's his reaction:

The appeals court decision focuses on whether Johnson's delay in seeking medical help for Baby Faith caused "a serious bodily injury," which was the basis for the conviction.

Despite the wide range of injuries Baby Faith suffered in 2013 - broken bones, internal bleeding from the brain and bruises - Johnson was only charged for fracturing the baby's neck and exacerbating it by not timely seeking medical attention.

The appeals court opinion, signed by Chief Justice Rogelio Valdez, says prosecutors had to prove Johnson's actions led to more injuries due to the lack of medical care.

The majority of Baby Faith's injuries were sustained within the two- to three-week period before she was taken to a hospital in August 2013.

Here's an excerpt from the opinion, which refers to Baby Faith by her initials "F.M.":

The evidence in this case shows that Johnson delayed seeking medical care for at least some period of time before she took (F.M.) to the hospital. The medical testimony generally indicated that the majority of F.M.'s injuries were sustained within the two-to-three week period immediately prior to being taken to the hospital. However, the evidence does not show any interval of time between the occurrence of any particular injury and a delay in seeking medical care for that injury.
Furthermore, and most important, the evidence does not show that F.M. suffered a separate and distinct, or at least incrementally greater, serious injury attributable to Johnson's delay in seeking medical care.

The opinion further states "the evidence is legally sufficient to convict Johnson of third degree injury to a child by omission."

Read the opinion in its entirety here:

Darrell Mason, Baby Faith's biological father, pleaded guilty and was sentenced last year to 25 years in prison for his role in the child abuse. It was not immediately clear how this decision could affect Mason's case.

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