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St. Lucie victim vows abuse bill will come back


WRITER:
 Derek Simmonsen
DATE: May 13, 2007

Her quest to change the state's law on child abuse might have ended in defeat this year, but that's not about to stop Jodi Walsh.

"My work doesn't stop just because the (legislative) session stops," Walsh, of Port St. Lucie, said. "This is still an important issue. We have a loophole in our case law that is open that still needs to be addressed."

Her involvement began in November 2003 when her former boyfriend told their 6-year-old son over the phone to get a knife and stab her. Though Edward Munao was convicted of child abuse in 2005, an appeals court threw out the conviction, saying words alone don't amount to abuse under the law.

Since then, Walsh has formed an organization to raise awareness of emotional abuse, lobbied lawmakers and appeared on national television, including the Montel Williams show and the O'Reilly Factor.

After consulting with Walsh and others, State Rep. Gayle Harrell filed a bill in the House and State Sen. Dave Aronberg filed a counterpart in the senate during the past session that would have clarified the state's definition of child abuse. Currently, child abuse is defined as an "intentional act that could reasonably be expected to result in physical or mental injury to a child."

The Fourth District Court of Appeal found this wording was too vague because it didn't protect First Amendment rights to free speech and didn't define "mental injury," though the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee later disagreed and affirmed a conviction in another case. Harrell's bill would have made it a crime to verbally abuse a
child to the point it causes them to lose the ability to function.

While the bill quickly passed two House committees and was on its way to eventually being up for a floor vote, the bill died in a Senate committee, Harrell said. Because there was no action on the bill in the Senate, that affected the House version, and ultimately the House bill still was in a committee when the session ended May 4.

"We were very disappointed that we were not able to get all the way through the process," Harrell said. "The last two weeks of session get very, very busy ... when one chamber doesn't move a bill, the other chamber holds back."

Harrell said she definitely will sponsor the bill again next year. Having Walsh lobby and speak out on behalf of the bill has been a great help in influencing lawmakers on the issue, she said.

"Having someone with a compelling story to tell is extremely helpful," Harrell said. "Legislators can see the face of the problem; they can see the issue."

While efforts to change the law would not have affected Munao's case, Walsh said she hoped it would help others in the future. Though somewhat disillusioned by state politics, she said she plans to lobby Gov. Charlie Crist to find out his position on the law and plans to continue raising awareness about emotional abuse.

"I'll be right back there next year and coming back full force. I'd probably say much stronger than I was this year," Walsh said. "I will be out and I will speak the truth."

***

* 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 initially was 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 Florida Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

* Munao will be released from prison in December 2008, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.

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