Difference Of Opinion Delays Murder Trial In Duluth

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010 at 7:40 am

A significant difference of opinion between two medical experts has led to a delay in the trial of a Duluth man accused of killing an 11-month-old neighbor boy.

Michael Virgil Tahtinen, 37, is charged with second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter in the death of Connor Robison on Sept. 4, 2008. The trial was scheduled to start this month, but was rescheduled Tuesday for July 6.

The Duluth News Tribune reports that Dr. Janice Ophoven of Woodbury, Minn., a nationally known pediatric forensic pathologist with more than 30 years of experience, believed the time between the boy’s alleged injury and the time of his death was about six hours. But because Ophoven was unavailable to testify at Tahtinen’s trial, the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office had a second expert, Dr. Rich Kaplan, examine the boy’s death.

Kaplan determined that there was only one hour between the alleged injury and the time the boy died. Kaplan’s opinion wasn’t disclosed to the defense until Oct. 20.

Judge Sally Tarnowski ruled the prosecution would be prejudiced if Kaplan wasn’t allowed to testify, and the defense would be prejudiced if its expert witness didn’t have time to challenge Kaplan’s finding. So the court continued the trial.

According to the criminal complaint, the boy was found unresponsive and without a pulse by emergency personnel responding to a call that he had fallen and was possibly losing consciousness. The infant was pronounced dead at a hospital about three hours later.

A St. Louis County medical examiner performed an autopsy and found that the boy suffered multiple tears in his liver, including a massive laceration with the tear extending deep into the organ. The death was ruled a homicide. The News Tribune also reports that the medical examiner’s opinion is that the child died from massive blunt trauma to the lower chest and abdomen that produced a massive rupture of the liver.

The boy, his 3-year-old sister and his mother were visiting the Tahtinen home across the alley from their home, the complaint says. Connor was put down for a nap while his mother and Tahtinen’s wife went downstairs to practice music. About 15 minutes later, Tahtinen appeared downstairs holding the crying boy, who had a small cut on his lip and a red mark on his stomach.

Tahtinen told investigators the boy apparently fell twice out of a portable crib. The defendant heard the thuds, but didn’t actually see the falls, he said.

Tarnowski earlier denied defense motions that charges be dropped against Tahtinen because of a lack of evidence. Two St. Louis County medical examiners reviewed the case. Both agreed that a fall from a portable crib could not have caused the injuries to the boy’s liver, even if he had fallen on an object.

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