A 34-year-old Ohio man accused of causing the death of his 8-year-old stepsister almost 20 years ago will not be prosecuted after a judge declined to move his case to adult court.
Prosecutors claim that when Jason Draper was 15 years old, he held Erica Shoup down in a bathtub of scalding water in August 1991. Erica died a month later.
Her death was initially attributed to a rare skin disease but ruled a homicide in 1992.
Draper, who now lives in Columbus, was not arrested until December after authorities said they received more information from witnesses who said they heard Draper admit putting the girl in the bathtub and three doctors who said they now believe immersion burns caused the child's death. They said that allowed them to establish probable cause for an arrest warrant.
Because Draper was a juvenile when Erica died, prosecutors had to have a court certify him as an adult before he could be tried. But prosecutors learned late Thursday that state District Judge Jean Boyd had denied their request.
"Of course we are disappointed with the court's ruling," prosecutor Alana Minton told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "We had hoped to finally bring justice for Erica and her family."
An arrest warrant affidavit shows that four witnesses, including two Fort Worth firefighters who responded to the emergency call, told police last year that Draper admitted putting the girl in the bathtub.
Draper's attorney Reagan Wynne said his client, who is married and has three children, was elated with the judge's decision and hopes to put the matter behind him.
Prosecutors argued that new evidence had come to light just last year that would allow them to pursue a case against Draper. But Wynn, in arguing against the move, contended in a court hearing that prosecutors could have pursued prosecution before Draper turned 18.
"The reason the family code was written that way is it puts us at a horrible disadvantage to try to come in 20 years later and rely on witnesses to accurately recollect what they did or said ... when this could have all been done at the time," Wynn said.
Wynn said Erica's death was previously investigated and even taken before a grand jury.
"They have not uncovered any significant new evidence that would push them over the edge that they didn't have back then," Wynn said.
Erica's mother, Debbie Speegle, said she was not surprised by the judge's ruling.
"I knew back then what happened. It was obvious to me. Why it wasn't obvious to everybody else, I don't know," Speegle said in a telephone interview Friday. "I think basically this ruling just amplifies that it should have been taken care of back then. I think what basically they're saying is, `There was enough back then to try it.' Why didn't you?"
Though he won't face trial in criminal court, a civil jury in Ohio found Draper responsible in 1995 for putting the girl in the bathtub.