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Testimony of 9-Year-Old Witness Leads to Murder Conviction

March 9, 1995

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) _ Sarah Yates cried just a little as she told a jury how a holdup man killed her stepfather and then took aim at her.

``He pointed the gun at me, he pulled the trigger, I raised my hands up and said, `Please don’t shoot me,‴ the 9-year-old girl testified.

Sarah’s life was spared when the murder weapon apparently jammed. Three hours after listening to her describe the robbery of the suburban gas station where her stepfather worked, the jury convicted Leon Taylor of murder, armed robbery and other charges.

Although Taylor’s two half siblings, who were charged in the case, also testified against him, prosecutors called Sarah the key to Tuesday’s conviction.

``She was the case. We didn’t know if we were going to have the co-defendants,″ prosecutor Dan Miller said Wednesday. ``You can’t trust a snitch until you ask them the question on the stand.″

Taylor, 37, faces life imprisonment or the death penalty. The jury resumed sentencing deliberations today.

Sarah has been plagued with nightmares and headaches since the April 1994 holdup. But hours after she testified, she was laughing and joking for the first time since the killing, said her mother, Astrid Newton.

``She knew she had to talk about it,″ Newton told the jury Wednesday during the sentencing phase of Taylor’s trial. ``She had to put daddy’s murder away. The psychological problems started with what she witnessed.″

Sarah’s ordeal began April 14, when she accompanied her stepfather, retired autoworker Robert Newton, to the gas station in Independence where he worked as an attendant.

Two men, identified during the trial as Taylor and his half brother Willie Owens, entered the station and Owens stole a bag of cash, Sarah said.

Then Taylor walked her and her stepfather at gunpoint to a back room and asked if there was a lock on the door. Sarah said she looked away for a moment.

``I heard a big bang,″ she testified. ``I thought the guy with the gun had slammed the door. I turned around and saw my dad on the floor.″

At that point, Sarah said, Taylor pointed a pistol at her and she pleaded with him. When the gun failed to discharge, ``he looked at it a bit funny″ and left.

``I said a prayer ... I called my mom and told her my dad got shot,″ Sarah testified. ``I went under the table in case they came back.″ Then she called 911.

Dr. Doug Geenens, who works at a Kansas City psychiatric hospital, said testifying might have helped Sarah. ``In a lot of cases, it’s therapeutic for the victims to confront the perpetrators in the courtroom,″ he said.

But psychologist Glenn Collet believes the needs of the judicial system may be at odds with those of a patient and therapist.

``Psychotherapy moves slower than the judicial system,″ he said. ``You have to move at the pace your patient is ready to move at.″

Miller said he wouldn’t have put such a young child on the stand if he had had another choice. But, he said, ``the family ... indicated it might be good for her to testify.″

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