South Korean prosecutors charge woman who abused 16-month-old daughter to death with murder

A still image from EBS programme Any Ordinary Family, showing little Jung-in and her adoptive mother. PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM EBS
Angry people block a prison bus carrying the stepmother of little Jung-in, as she leaves Seoul Southern District Court on Jan 13, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE/YONHAP

SEOUL - South Korean prosecutors charged a woman who abused her 16-month-old adopted child to death with murder, amid rising public anger over the case which went on trial on Wednesday (Jan 13).

The woman, surnamed Jang, was indicted last month on charges of fatal child abuse and neglect.

Her daughter, known as Jung-in, died on Oct 13 last year of severe abdominal injuries, including a ruptured pancreas, after suffering months of extensive abuse.

The case triggered a public outcry over the lack of protection of child abuse victims and led the police chief to apologise for failing to investigate the abuse before the child's death.

Prosecutors said in court Wednesday morning that they added the murder charge after a discussion with forensic experts concluded that Jang had "applied a blunt force such as stepping on the victim's abdomen even though she knew that the victim could die from such a strong force after being abused continuously".

Jang pleaded not guilty, insisting that she "did not intentionally cause the victim's death".

She did, however, admit that she was so upset with her child not eating that "I hit her stomach and back with her lying down".

She also admitted to causing bone fractures in the child's collarbone and right rib, as well as "grabbing her by her arm, shaking her and dropping her".

"But I have never exercised strong blunt force enough to damage her organs," Jang claimed.

Wednesday's trial lasted 50 minutes. It will continue on Feb 17, with the prosecution ready to call in 17 witnesses, including a forensic scientist who conducted Jung-in's autopsy and a neighbour who heard loud noises coming from Jang's apartment.

Following a TV programme that questioned why police reports on the abuse had not been followed up, a #sorryjungin campaign ensued on social media, while dozens of petitions were filed calling for tougher penalties for child abuse and stronger police action.

More than 800 people applied to watch the trial, but only 11 were allowed inside because of social distancing rules. Another 40 watched a live broadcast in a separate room.

Dozens of people from media to activists and even YouTubers gathered outside the Seoul Southern District Court early in the morning, with some shouting "Execute the murderer!".

Chaos erupted when Jang left the court in a bus, with people running after the vehicle, screaming and throwing snowballs at it.

The stepfather (centre) of little Jung-in is surrounded by reporters as he leaves Seoul Southern District Court on Jan 13, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE/YONHAP

Jang's husband, surnamed Ahn, also appeared in court in a concurrent trial. He was indicted last month on charges of child abandonment and neglect.

Under mounting public pressure, Parliament passed 18 Bills aimed at preventing child abuse last Friday (Jan 8).

A major change was to remove a clause in the Civic Act that allows parents to "take necessary disciplinary action" to "protect or educate" a child. This will make it harder for parents to legally justify the need to physically punish their kids, for instance, through caning or spanking.

A woman mourns by a photo of little Jung-in, in front of Seoul Southern District Court on Jan 13, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE/YONHAP

Revisions were also made to laws regarding child abuse that will give police the authority to immediately launch investigations into reports of suspected abuse, rather than dismiss them as domestic issues.

The police will also have the power to separate a child from his abusers for 72 hours and investigate both sides separately.

Another revision to the law increased the fine for obstructing suspected child abuse investigations from a maximum of 15 million won (S$18,100) to 50 million won. Offenders can also be jailed for up to five years.

However, a Bill to double the jail sentence for child abusers from five to 10 years was not passed, with lawmakers saying this required further discussion.

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