An Elburn man pleaded guilty Friday to the October 2010 beating of toddler Molly Koch in St. Charles that left the girl with severe, likely permanent, brain damage.
James Cooper agreed to a sentence of 15 years in prison, on a charge of aggravated battery to a child, before Kane County Circuit Court Judge Timothy Q. Sheldon.
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He will have to serve at least 85 percent of the sentence, and will receive credit for the 519 days he has already spent in the Kane County jail. Charges of endangering the life, health or welfare of a child were dropped.
The victim's grandmother was outraged by the deal and that she was not allowed to present a victim impact statement on behalf of Molly.
"In our system, the kids have no rights," Carrie Johnson of Elgin said outside the Kane County Judicial Center, tears welling up in her eyes, as she clutched a recent photo of Molly. "What ... happened to the case?"
Cooper was eligible for a sentence of up to 60 years if convicted, under extended-term sentencing determined by the judge. Johnson wanted that, but said she would have been happy with 30, the maximum for a Class X felony without such an extension. But Cooper also could have been sentenced to as few as six years.
On Oct. 26, 2010, Cooper, a heroin user, and his girlfriend Cathleen Koch, Molly's mother, were in a hotel in St. Charles where Cooper lived. Cooper admitted Friday to forcefully throwing Molly down on a bed, injuring her head. She was 23 months old at the time. Police alleged he first shook her in midair. She also suffered a broken arm and dislocated shoulder.
Cathleen Koch also was charged with aggravated battery of a child; endangering the life, health or welfare of a child; and obstruction of justice.
St. Charles police allege that Koch brought or allowed Molly to accompany Cooper along on trips to buy heroin with and without her, that there was heroin in the hotel room, and that she lied to police about Cooper's whereabouts. Her case is pending.
Cathleen Koch was in court early Friday morning with her mother. Both left before Cooper's case was called, but Johnson returned when notified by a victim's advocate who was watching the case.
Cooper, a widower, was granted a 20-minute phone call to speak with his two children before he is sent to prison.
Johnson said she had learned of a possible plea deal -- not from the state's attorney's office, but because Cooper was talking about it in the jail. She then confirmed the information with an assistant state's attorney. If she had been allowed to address the court, Johnson said, she would have told the judge "please don't take the deal."
The state's attorney's office disagreed with her assessment.
"This office and our victim advocates have maintained contact with Ms. Johnson throughout this case. We entered this plea agreement after talking with Ms. Johnson and analyzing the facts and considering the defendant's criminal history. We felt this was an appropriate offer. We understand that not everyone agrees with our decisions," said Kane County State's Attorney Joe McMahon, in a prepared statement. "It is important to note that we are limited in what information we can share because the case against Mr. Cooper's co-defendant is pending."
Before Cooper accepted the plea agreement, Assistant State's Attorney Joe Cullen asked Cooper if he brought the girl along with him to heroin deals with her mother; Cooper answered "quite a few times." But Cooper also said he didn't remember if he had taken Molly with him the day of her beating. "I don't know for sure ... I can't remember," to which Cullen asked if his memory was "foggy" due to heroin use.
Cooper testified he did not hit Cathleen Koch that night, did not threaten her or her family, and did not restrain her from helping her daughter that night.
Koch was charged with the battery under the theory that as a parent, she had a duty to intercede in the beating. The state's attorney's office said at her bond hearing that Koch allowed Cooper to be around Molly although he had twice before injured the child. Her attorney says Koch is a victim of domestic violence, that that Cooper had hit her in the days before the attack.
After the hearing, Cullen said no deal was made for Cooper to testify against Koch.
"Our office remains committed to seeking justice for the most defenseless and vulnerable in our society," McMahon's statement read. "Certainly, each of us feels a tug at the heart when we learn of a defenseless child being beaten up by someone she should be able to trust will protect her.
"We hope that this case serves as a warning of what can happen to a person who becomes involved with illicit narcotics and violently acts out toward those around him. This defendant acknowledged today in court that he had used heroin many times in this victim's presence. He is headed to prison, but a child suffered much greater consequences as a result of his selfish and criminal conduct."