Mother of 8-year-old girl found dead in Merced makes first court appearance

30-year-old Samantha Johnson is charged with felony child abuse and first-degree murder.
MERCED, Calif. (KFSN) -- The woman accused of killing her 8-year-old daughter in Merced made her first court appearance on Monday on murder charges.

Sophia Mason was like any other child, full of life and innocence, but that was all taken away.

Authorities found her body in a bathtub two weeks ago.

30-year-old Samantha Johnson is charged with felony child abuse and first-degree murder, which could result in a potential life sentence if convicted.

On Monday, she entered a not-guilty plea.

Her public defender Beth Lee says she wants the public to keep an open mind.

"I want everyone to remember that those are allegations, she hasn't been convicted of anything. No evidence has yet to be presented in a court of law that she is in fact guilty. She is innocent as she stands here today," said Lee.

Documents from the Merced Police Department's investigation, obtained by Action News, contain statements from Samantha Johnson to detectives.

Johnson claimed she did not see her child in a month.

The documents also allege Sophia was forced to live in a metal shed in the backyard of the house, and was sexually abused by her mother's boyfriend Dhante Jackson.

"It's complete shock and disbelief, it's like a nightmare, we are living in a nightmare and it doesn't end," says Melanie Verlatti, Samantha Johnson's cousin.

She tells Action News her cousin had her struggles, but was trying to turn her life around.

Verlatti says little Sophia was adored by her family.

Sophia Mason's family and authorities are pleading with the public to help find Dhante Jackson, who's wanted for homicide. There is a $3,000 reward for information leading to his arrest.

Samantha Johnson will be back in court on April 11th.
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