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Courts & Justice

Woman gets 15 to 30 years after plea in 2019 toddler's death

nalani_5.jpg
Allegheny County
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A woman has pleaded guilty to third-degree murder and kidnapping in the 2019 death of a western Pennsylvania toddler kidnapped near Pittsburgh and later found dead in a park dozens of miles away.

Sharena Nancy, 27, entered the plea Friday in Allegheny County Court as part of an agreement with prosecutors under which she was sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison. She will receive credit for the 2 1/2 years she has spent behind bars.

The father of Nalani Johnson told authorities that Nancy, with whom he had been romantically involved, drove off with the toddler Aug. 31, 2019 in Penn Hills. The body of the child, who was about to have her second birthday, was found four days later in an Indiana County park about 37 miles (60 kilometers) away. Investigators said the girl was strapped into her car seat and in the same clothes she was last seen wearing.

The Indiana County coroner’s office ruled the death a homicide and called it consistent with suffocation. Authorities said there was no evidence to support Nancy's post-arrest allegation that the child’s father had sold her and she turned the toddler over to a woman in a roadside rendezvous. As part of the plea agreement, prosecutors withdrew charges of interference with the custody of a child, concealment of children, and abuse of a corpse.

Defense attorney Anthony DeLuca called the case “an unimaginable tragedy," adding that there was “deep regret here in the courtroom on behalf of our client.” He said Nancy has served as a mentor to others at the county jail and has shown a willingness to improve her own life and that of those around her.

More than 20 family members and other supporters were in court for the plea, many weeping as prosecutors reviewed the facts of the case. Some said they couldn't understand how the defendant, a mother of two children herself, could be capable of harming an innocent child.

“The fact that you are a mother shows what kind of monster you really are,” the child's great-aunt, Pariss Johnson, told Nancy during a victim impact statement Friday.

Common Pleas Judge Bruce Beemer said there are no words to express the suffering of the family.

“You have robbed them, and robbed her, of that life," Beemer said. “She should be coming home and telling these wonderful people what happened in kindergarten, the friends she made. ... This poor family has been sentenced to life. I hope you understand that.”

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