WRITER: Sarah Prohaska
DATE: Friday, March 16, 2007
The Florida Supreme Court has declined to hear the state's appeal in the case of a Treasure Coast man whose child abuse conviction was overturned last year - a court battle that prompted a local lawmaker to introduce a bill this year in an attempt to clarify how Florida defines emotional child abuse and mental injury.
A jury in 2005 convicted Edward Munao, 41, of child abuse and solicitation to commit aggravated battery in connection with statements he made to his 6-year-old son. While Munao never physically injured the boy, prosecutors argued he mentally harmed his son by manipulating the boy to be aggressive toward his mother, Jodi Walsh, who was Munao's ex-girlfriend. The manipulation climaxed, they said, when he told the boy to get a knife and stab Walsh.
The 4th District Court of Appeal, however, threw out Munao's child abuse conviction, saying state law says child abuse must include a physical act and can't be based solely on speech. Last week, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal in Munao's case, meaning the appellate court's decision stands. Munao is still serving a five-year sentence for his conviction on solicitation to commit aggravated battery.
Sandi Copes, a spokeswoman for the state Attorney General's Office, said Thursday the Supreme Court's decision closes the case and the office has no further recourse.
State Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, said the high court's decision not to review the law in Munao's case makes her effort to change the law even more important. Harrell worked with Walsh, who has become an outspoken advocate for helping emotionally abused children, to draft a bill they say should provide a better definition of mental child abuse, without overreaching.
"We must assure that no other conviction will be overturned because of lack of clarity or a question concerning the constitutional protections for freedom of speech," Harrell said. "The definition we are using for mental child abuse is one that is currently in another section of the statute and has stood the test of time."
Harrell and Walsh found a Senate sponsor for the bill, and it is now working its way through legislative committees.
When the appellate judges threw out Munao's conviction last year, they said the "problematic circumstances in this case invite the legislature to reconstruct the statutory language in a way that balances the strong interest in protecting children with the fundamental preservation of individual constitutional freedoms."
Walsh said she hopes the bill will help do that.
"Even though this is probably the end of the road for the court case, I'm glad I still have a chance to get a new law passed in 2007," Walsh said.
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