Daycare owner one of first to be charged under new murder law

The owner and operator of an Alpharetta daycare center indicted in the hanging death of a 3-year-old boy is likely one of the first in the state to be prosecuted under a new murder law that went into effect July 1. And if convicted, the woman could face steeper sentencing than in prior cases.

“The law is so new, it’s not even electronically in the books yet,” Jay Abt, a criminal defense attorney, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Abt is not involved with the case against Janna Vernon Thompson, who ran Ms. Janna’s Daycare until her license was revoked. But Abt said the law applies to cases involving when the death of a child is due to neglect.

“It’s actually easier for the prosecutors to prove because they don’t have to prove malicious intent,” Abt said. “All they have to prove that there was neglect on the part of the adult.”

Thompson had seven children in her care, a violation of state law, on July 8 when she left Max Stephens and two other children alone on the playground while she stayed inside to discipline another child and make a phone call, according to investigators. When she returned outside, she found Max unresponsive on the slide with twine wrapped around his neck, Thompson told police.

Max was rushed to a hospital, but died the following day of asphyxia, or lack of oxygen. The Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, which monitors childcare centers, ordered Thompson’s center closed and revoked her license.

On Friday, a Fulton County grand jury indicted Thompson on two counts of second degree murder and two counts of cruelty to children in the second degree in the death of Max, according to the district attorney’s office. Late Thursday night, Thompson was arrested and booked in to the Fulton County jail. She is expected to make her first court appearance Friday.

Prior to the second degree murder law, those accused in similar crimes were likely charged with involuntary manslaughter, which allows a maximum prison sentence of 10 years on a conviction. The sentence for a second degree murder conviction ranges from 10 to 30 years.

Rep. Christian Coomer (R-Cartersville) said he wrote the bill after seeing discrepancies in how cases were handled. Coomer, a lawyer, has handled criminal and civil cases and has worked as a prosecutor.

“We had this system where, county to county, you were getting different treatment for people that committed the same exact act,” Coomer said Thursday night.

In some previous cases, felony murder was too harsh but manslaughter not harsh enough, Coomer said.

“Prosecutors needed a tool that would adequately fit the circumstances,” he said.

Although Atlanta police have not charged anyone under the new law, it is one that will be considered in future child death investigations, according to Capt. Paul Guerrucci, commander of the homicide unit.

“The key word on second degree murder, as it relates to a child, there has to be criminal neglect,” Guerrucci said.

A trial date for Thompson has not yet been scheduled.