NEWPORT NEWS — A judge on Tuesday denied a request to reduce a life sentence in a Newport News sexual assault case — maintaining the punishment he handed down in February.
Sarah Anne Johnson, 39, pleaded guilty in November to six felony counts stemming from an October 2016 incident involving a then 13-year-old girl.
Johnson was accused of helping her boyfriend, Ronald Larry Morehouse, perform oral sex on the girl that day during the videotaped assault. Prosecutors said that included Johnson directing Morehouse and the girl during the incident, repositioning the girl’s body at one point, and telling her to keep quiet or she would gag her mouth.
In February, Newport News Circuit Court Judge Bryant L. Sugg sentenced Johnson to life behind bars — plus another 65 years — for the crimes.
The life sentence came on an abduction count that stemmed from restraining the girl’s arms with sexual bondage equipment during the assault. Sugg also sentenced Johnson to a combined 65 years on charges of sodomy, conspiracy to commit sodomy, felony child abuse and two counts of producing child pornography.
The victim knew both Johnson and Morehouse, but the Daily Press and The Virginian-Pilot aren’t specifying the exact relationship so as not to identify the victim.
Prosecutors said Morehouse abused the girl over a period of at least two years, with prosecutors saying Johnson at one point gave Morehouse permission to have sex with her. The child abuse charge against Johnson stemmed from allowing Morehouse to beat the girl for telling a friend about the abuse.
The assault took place in a trailer home in midtown Newport News. Two videos of the October 2016 incident were found on Morehouse’s laptop after police began an investigation into a case involving a different girl. The videos — five minutes and 30 minutes in duration — were submitted into evidence at Johnson’s February sentencing hearing.
Morehouse, 46, pleaded guilty in April of 2020 on a series of rape, sodomy, aggravated sexual battery and child porn charges. Sugg sentenced him to seven life terms, plus 133 years. Morehouse also got another 45 years in a separate James City County case in which he pleaded guilty to two counts of soliciting a minor.
On Tuesday, Johnson’s attorney, Assistant Newport News Public Defender David Lee urged Sugg to reduce Johnson’s sentence, noting that the victim in the case supported a lesser sentence.
Lee said he waited a few months to ask for the reduction to give Sugg some space from the videos that even the lawyer acknowledged were difficult to watch.
Judges shouldn’t be “overly swayed by passion,” Lee said, saying Sugg must “ensure the sentences are objective.”
Lee said the victim in the case found Johnson’s sentence too harsh, wanting a lighter sentence to help the victim reconcile with Johnson. “She asked for 10 to 15 years, so that there’s some opportunity for her healing and for some closure,” Lee said.
Johnson also asked Sugg for mercy. “I’m not perfect,” Johnson told him. “I know I did wrong, and I needed to be punished for what I done.”
But she testified that she talks with the victim once a week, and wants to further “bridge that relationship.”
Johnson said she’s also taking GED classes from jail and has taken classes on human trafficking, parenting and Bible studies. Having faced her own sexual abuse as a child, she said she now realizes “there was a lot of baggage I needed to work through.”
She came into court using a walker to get around. She said she has an inherited neurological disorder — olivopontocerebellar atrophy, or OPCA — that results in brain shrinking, memory lapses and balance issues.
“My mind is not all there,” she said. “My brain doesn’t function like a normal person.”
The disease has significantly shortened her life span, she said, and doctors have told her that “I’ll be on my death bed at (age) 50.”
But Newport News Senior Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Jamie Lawson urged Sugg to keep his original sentence in place.
Lawson said Johnson knew about the neurological disease at the time of the sexual abuse, and no new evidence has been offered. She also contended the original sentence fits the facts of the case: That Johnson not only failed to protect the girl from Morehouse, but also participated in the abuse.
“She directed videos of (a child) being sexually defiled at length by her boyfriend,” Lawson said. “She was directing the show.”
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The prosecutor noted that Johnson at one point positioned the girl’s legs during the recorded session. She also put her hand over the girl’s mouth at certain points so other occupants in the trailer home couldn’t hear her squealing.
But at the end of the hearing, Sugg said nothing he heard would cause him to cut the sentence. He said he thinks of the case often, and that the February sentence “was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life.”
At the February sentencing hearing, Sugg took a break to decompress after watching the videos, and he said he took the time to consider each charge one by one.
“These are some of the toughest cases that you have as a judge, and this one stands out to me,” he said Tuesday, at one point fighting back tears as he talked about adults’ responsibility to make children “happy, healthy and strong.”
Sugg said he came to Tuesday’s hearing with an open mind — open to the possibility that he might have missed something that warranted a sentence reduction.
“Unfortunately I didn’t,” he said.
Peter Dujardin, 757-247-4749, firstname.lastname@example.org