Erica Pratt falls silent in courtroom The 8-year-old kidnapping victim could not identify one of her alleged abductors. She made a daring escape last year.

Posted: June 06, 2003

Eight-year-old kidnap victim Erica Pratt took the witness stand with a big smile yesterday in a crowded courtroom in the Criminal Justice Center, but soon the engaging little girl in the pink pants suit turned shy and then glum.

Despite a prosecutor's gentle efforts to ask her about the ordeal in which she was snatched off the street July 22 and held for $150,000 ransom, Erica was unable to identify James Burns, the man on trial in Common Pleas Court charged with her abduction.

Erica gained nationwide attention when she chewed off duct tape binding her mouth and wrists and fled from a dank basement, where her abductors had imprisoned her. But none of the plucky nerve or drama of that escape came through yesterday.

Erica seemed to remember few details of her kidnapping and was unable to identify Burns, who sat beside his lawyer, Nino V. Tinari, in the courtroom, or Edward Johnson, a codefendant whose photographs she was shown.

Did she recall what the kidnappers looked like?

No.

Whether they had hair?

Beards or mustaches?

The color of their skin?

"Do you see either of them in the courtroom today?" Assistant District Attorney Leslie Gomez asked.

"No," Erica said.

Burns, 30, is accused of driving the getaway car after Johnson, 24, grabbed Erica near her grandmother's home on Kingsessing Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia.

Johnson pleaded guilty to kidnapping and related charges last week and is awaiting sentencing.

Burns contended he had nothing to do with the crime. According to a statement he made to police after his arrest in July, he claimed that Johnson tried to enlist him in the kidnapping but that he refused to get involved.

After she escaped from the basement in an abandoned house in the city's Logan section, Erica identified Johnson from a photo spread as the man who grabbed her, but she told police she could not identify the man who drove the getaway car.

That changed 10 days later when she identified Burns in a police lineup.

After several efforts yesterday to prompt Erica to reconfirm that identification, Gomez gave up.

"Erica," the prosecutor said, "That's all the questions I have for you."

Tinari declined to cross-examine the girl.

After a court recess, Gomez held Erica's hand as she ushered her - smiling once again - and members of her family from the Criminal Justice Center.

Gomez told the jury on Wednesday at the opening of the trial that the prosecution's case includes evidence that a cell phone belonging to Burns' girlfriend was used to make a series of ransom demands on Erica's grandmother, Barbara Pratt.

Gomez said police also recovered the key to the house where Erica was imprisoned for nearly 24 hours from Burns' pants after he was arrested. She said witnesses saw Burns around the house.

The jury trial before Judge Shelley Robins New is expected to last several more days.

Contact staff writer L. Stuart Ditzen at 215-854-2431 or sditzen@phillynews.com.

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