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Rep. Harrell to file bill more clearly defining emotional abuse

WRITER: Derek Simmonsen
DATE: February 5, 2007

The 6-year-old boy was angry about not being allowed to watch TV so he called his father on the phone for help.

Edward Munao, who was estranged from the boy's mother Jodi Walsh, told him to go to the kitchen, get a knife and stab her, according to testimony at his trial. Those words, overheard by Walsh on a speakerphone, sent Munao to prison but continue to have repercussions more than three years after he made the call.

Munao's case is now before the Florida Supreme Court after an appeals court overturned his child abuse conviction, saying the law was too broad and vague because it didn't protect First Amendment rights and didn't define what "mental injury" to a child meant. In response to the decision, State Rep. Gayle Harrell plans to file a bill this week that will clearly define emotional abuse, she said.

"It gives a clear definition of mental child abuse that is not overreaching," she said. "We want to be concise and clear enough so that the kind of situation that occurred in St. Lucie County never occurs again. We don't want to have a case overturned because the law isn't clear enough."

Walsh plans to hold a press conference this week to discuss the bill in detail and has been to Tallahassee to talk about the issue of emotional abuse with lawmakers.

"I had no idea anything would be taken to this level," she said. "I'm been running around in circles for three years."

The case is now moving on two fronts — one at the legislative level, the other in the courts. The state attorney general's office has asked the Florida Supreme Court to hear the Munao case, claiming the Fourth District Court of Appeal's opinion overturning Munao's conviction conflicts with a different opinion from the First District.

Miami attorney Roy Black, who is representing Munao in his appeal, argued in court papers the decision does not conflict and even if it did, the Supreme Court should not take up the case because it has already been properly decided.

"The decision of the Fourth District Court correctly balances the First Amendment rights of parents, teachers and child care workers with the state's interest in protecting children," Black wrote in his brief. There are also problems with trying to define what speech is "reasonably expected" to hurt a child, the current standard of the law.

The high court has not decided whether it will hear the case or not.

Harrell said she's aware of First Amendment concerns and said she feels the new bill won't abridge rights or hurt a parent's ability to discipline a child. Among the parts of the bill are a section defining "maliciousness" and "mental injury," terms which the appeals court found were too vague and a clause giving an exception to any activity protected by the First Amendment.

Harrell, a Republican who represents parts of St. Lucie and Martin counties, said she plans to submit the legislation this week after finishing some minor tweaks. She is looking for a Senate sponsor and has several potential candidates.

Even if the state Supreme Court decides to overrule the appeals court decision, Walsh said the law needs to be defined and clarified. She is ready to testify at any hearings on the bill.

"I'm not giving up. I won't give up till this is passed. It's something that has to be done," she said.

THE EDWARD MUNAO CASE

• Edward Munao, 41, 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 last year threw out his child abuse conviction and knocked five years off his sentence, saying words alone do not amount to abuse. The case is now on appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.

 

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