After nine days at trial, a Lawrenceville man who crushed his 2-year-old stepson’s chest was convicted of murder.
Bertram Hounkpatin will be sentenced for the crime on Thursday, a week after a jury found him guilty of three counts of felony murder for the death of Noel Leslie Johnson.
According to prosecutors, on Jan. 25, 2014, Gwinnett County firefighters and Lawrenceville police officers responded to a 911 call about Johnson not breathing.
When first responders arrived, they found Johnson on the floor of his bedroom, with his 11-year-old sister performing CPR on him. He was taken to Gwinnett Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.
Johnson was one of six children living in the two-bedroom apartment with Hounkpatin and the children’s mother, who worked while Hounkpatin watched the kids.
Following Johnson’s death, police interviewed the three eldest children, who were 11, 9 and 7 at the time. All of them said on the morning of the 25th, they had finished breakfast and gone back to their room when Hounkpatin took Johnson and his 3-year-old brother into Hounkpatin’s bedroom.
“They then heard hitting noises coming from the bedroom, crying and then silence,” prosecutors said. “The defendant then came back into the children’s bedroom carrying the victim who appeared to be asleep. The defendant put the victim in his bed. Ten to 15 minutes later, his sister could not wake him up and 911 was then called.”
All three children told police Hounkpatin was physically abusive, particularly to Johnson and his 3-year-old brother.
“On multiple occasions, the defendant had taken them to another room and they heard hitting noises and crying,” prosecutors said. “The victim’s 11-year-old sister said that one time she saw the defendant squeeze her 3-year-old brother around the chest to the point that his voice was hoarse. The defendant did this because the child was sucking his thumb. She said that she was often worried about going to school because her brothers were home alone with the defendant.”
When Gwinnett County Medical Examiner Dr. Carol Terry performed an autopsy on Johnson, she found he had multiple rib fractures in his back and sides, prosecutors said.
While some were older breaks that had healed, the pattern “was consistent with the victim being squeezed around the chest.”
Ultimately, Terry ruled the cause of death was asphyxiation due to Johnson’s chest being crushed.
At trial, Hounkpatin denied being abusive to the children and said he “loved all of the children like they were his own,” prosecutors said.
“However, when asked during cross-examination why the older children would lie and say he was being abusive if he treated them so well, he could offer no explanation,” prosecutors said.
Former Georgia Bureau of Investigation Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Kris Sperry testified for the defense, saying he believed Johnson’s cause of death was due to “an undiagnosed seizure disorder” and he died from a seizure.
“He did concede that the victim did have older, healing rib fractures that were likely inflicted by another person, but he stated that the acute fractures were caused by aggressive CPR performed on the victim and not squeezing,” prosecutors said. “During cross-examination, Sperry was questioned how he reached his conclusion and issued a report even though he had not reviewed most of the victim’s medical records, watched any witness interviews and most importantly, had not examined the slides of the brain and ribs that Dr. Terry had prepared for microscopic examination.”
Following the verdict, jurors told attorneys that they did not find Sperry credible and immediately dismissed his testimony.
Gwinnett County Superior Court Judge Karen Beyers presided over the trial.