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Munao case could rewrite state's definition of child abuse

WRITER: Derek Simmonsen
DATE: October 13, 2006

ALEX BOERNER

Jodi Walsh, whose ex-boyfriend,Edward Munao, tried to get the couple's 6-year-old son to stab her, has formed an organization called A Child's Cry for Help, dedicated to reforming the state's child abuse laws to make it easier to prosecute emotional abuse.

PORT ST. LUCIE — A local case about a man who told his 6-year-old son to get a knife and stab the boy's mother could end up changing how the state defines child abuse.

Edward Munao, 40, of Stuart, was convicted last year of child abuse and solicitation to commit aggravated battery after making the call to the Port St. Lucie home of his ex-girlfriend, Jodi Walsh. But the trial raised larger questions about whether the emotional harm caused by such an act is a crime and the debate heated up after an appeals court overturned his abuse conviction last month.

Though state law includes "mental injury" as well as physical harm in its definition of child abuse, the Fourth District Court of Appeal found problems with the law's wording.

State Rep. Gayle Harrell on Thursday announced a task force to draft a new bill that will clear up the confusion in the law and make sure the emotional aspect of child abuse is as much a crime as physical harm.

The group will hold its first meeting next week and the public is invited to attend and weigh in on the issue.

"We're going to carefully craft it so we can address these issues," said Harrell, a Republican who represents parts of Martin and St. Lucie counties. "We want to start the conversation."

During his trial, prosecutors said Munao encouraged the boy to hit and insult Walsh, culminating in the November 2003 phone call where he told the boy to use a knife on her. He was convicted of child abuse and solicitation to commit aggravated battery and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Last month, the Fourth District Court of Appeal threw out his child abuse conviction, which knocked five years off his total sentence.

The appeals court found a problem in the state's definition of child abuse, which currently is an "intentional act that could reasonably be expected to result in physical or mental injury to a child." A previous decision found the law was overbroad because it applied to speech protected by the First Amendment and was vague because it didn't define "mental injury."

Since the trial, Walsh has been outspoken in her efforts to change the state's abuse laws and formed an organization called A Child's Cry For Help to advance the cause. She says the change could be modeled on laws in other states that narrow the definition of emotional abuse by requiring it be diagnosed by a mental health professional.

State Attorney Bruce Colton, whose office prosecuted Munao, described the trial as an "unusual case" and said he couldn't recall another case based on words alone. Since the Munao decision came down, the First District Court of Appeal has come to the opposite conclusion in another case involving child abuse and the issue may ultimately be heard by the Florida Supreme Court, Colton said.

Miami attorney Roy Black, who represented Munao in his appeal, could not be reached Thursday.

However, in a previous interview about the case, he said, "Once you start penalizing speech it becomes somewhat dangerous because you never know what you can say to or in the presence of a child."

Harrell said she is aware of those concerns and wants to make sure the law won't be "misused" to prosecute parents who are merely disciplining a misbehaving child.

The bill must be ready by January 1 to be considered for the next legislative session and Harrell said she hopes to have a preliminary draft ready after the November election.

• Edward Munao, 40, of Stuart, was found guilty by a jury in April 2005 of child abuse and solicitation to commit aggravated battery after telling his 6-year-old son to get a knife and stab the boy's mother during a phone call to her Port St. Lucie home. He was initially sentenced to 10 years in prison on the charges, but the Fourth District Court of Appeal threw out his child abuse conviction last month, saying words alone do not amount to abuse.

IF YOU GO

Anyone interested in offering suggestions on a proposed change in the state's child abuse law can attend a task force meeting from 4 to 5 p.m. Monday Oct. 16 at Port St. Lucie City Hall, 121 S.W. Port St. Lucie Blvd. Call (772) 873-6500 for more information or to confirm attendance.

 

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