In a move prosecutors weren’t expecting Thursday, a Butte man accused of shaking his 5-week-old boy and causing severe brain injuries pleaded guilty to felony assault on a minor.
Austin Blair Johnson, 27, could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison and fined $50,000 when sentenced later by District Court Judge Kurt Krueger.
Defendants rarely plead guilty to charges during their first formal arraignment in district court, but Johnson admitted dropping his infant son and shaking him between June 28 and July 1.
The plea surprised prosecutors and seemingly Krueger, too. He asked Johnson’s public defender – Deirdre Caughlan – if she had talked to her client about the decision and felt he was informed about it.
“We had an intense discussion about the whole thing while he was in jail,” Caughlan said.
When first asked for a plea to the charge of assault on a minor resulting in serious bodily injury, Johnson paused for several seconds, took a breath, and said, “Guilty.”
He appeared to be crying softly as Krueger went through a list of rights he was giving up, such as a jury trial or ability to appeal. He asked Johnson if he understood each one, and he repeatedly said he did.
Then Krueger asked him once again how he pleaded, clearly giving him a chance to reconsider, and Johnson again said, “Guilty.”
According to the charging document, police were called to St. James Healthcare around 11 p.m. on July 1 on a report that an infant had been brought in with a head injury due to suspicious circumstances.
Johnson was living with the boy and his mother in the basement of her parents' home on the 4000 block of State Street, and that night, the mother had gone upstairs to try on some jeans.
She came down a few minutes later, and the baby boy was limp and unresponsive but breathing. Johnson first said he was burping the infant when the baby's head fell backwards further than normal before he could catch it.
A doctor at St. James told police the boy suffered an injury to the back of his head, was bleeding, and would be transferred to Primary Care Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City. She told police the injury did not match Johnson’s description of what happened, court documents say.
When police questioned Johnson and told him about the doctor’s statement, he added that he had also dropped the boy on the floor.
But a child abuse pediatrician in Salt Lake determined the boy had also suffered chip fractures near his tibia and knee and all of the injuries were consistent with “shaken baby syndrome.”
An MRI showed the infant had suffered “severe and extensive damage to his brain.” The doctor said the damage was so bad, “it cannot have occurred from some undisclosed fall or other type of event like that.”
According to police, Johnson eventually admitted that on the night in question, he was extremely frustrated because the boy would not stop crying and he shook him. He also showed police how he did it.
Johnson has been in jail since July 12 with bond set at $100,000. He was returned to jail following the plea, and Krueger ordered a pre-sentence investigation with a sentencing date to be set later.