The Maryland Court of Appeals yesterday ordered dismissal of the last remaining criminal charge against a Montgomery County woman who allegedly stood by while an infant was beaten to death in her home during an "exorcism."
Joyce Lillian Pope was convicted in 1977 by a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge on charges of child abuse and misprison of a felony, a common law offense of failing to report a serious crime.
The court yesterday threw out the offense of misprision of a felony as too broad to be fairly applied, and in another part of its ruling, narrowed the scope of Maryland's child abuse law.
Pope was originally charged with child abuse because she allegedly stood by while 3-month-old Demiko Lee Norris was beaten to death by his mother, as the mother tried to rid him of a demon.
A lower appellate court reversed her conviction on that charge, and yesterday the state's highest court agreed.
The court ruled yesterday that Pope could be charged with child abuse only if she had "responsibility for the supervision" of the infant. Just because she took the mother and child into her home, and may have had a strong "moral obligation to help the child," she had "no legal obligation to do so" under current Maryland law.
When the Maryland legislature in 1966 amended the child abuse law to include persons who have "responsibility" for a child's supervision, it did not say who this encompasses, the court ruled.
However, the court found that a babysitter, for instance, is covered by the statute because the parents give the person responsibility and he or she accepts it. A person who takes a lost child into his home or a one who allows a neighbor's children to play in his yard would not be covered, the court held.
"In none of these situations would there be an intent to grant or assume the responsibility contemplated by the child abuse statute, and it would be incongruous indeed to subject such persons to possible criminal prosecution," the court said in an opinion by Judge Charles E. Orth Jr.
In the dissent, Judge John C. Eldridge found the majority's interpretation of the child abuse law "a totally unwarranted narrowing of an important piece of legislation."
Eldridge said it appeared that in the majority's view, a person who takes in a lost child may assume full responsibility for his care, keep him for a lengthy period of time "and during that time may batter the child unmercifully, but he would not be guilty of child abuse" under the current law.
The director of a state-funded child abuse project said that by narrowing the law "we lose something, but I don't think it's devastating."
Lawyer Curtis Decker said prosecutors have other offenses, such as assault, with they can charge people who hurt children.