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Duluth doctor testifies: Fall didn't kill toddler

A pediatric intensive care physician testified Monday that a 30-inch fall after crawling out of a playpen "would never" cause the injury that killed 11-month-old Connor Robison.

Dr. Elizabeth Kelley
Dr. Elizabeth Kelley, a pediatric intensive care physician, testified about the injuries of 11-month-old Connor Robison.

A pediatric intensive care physician testified Monday that a 30-inch fall after crawling out of a playpen "would never" cause the injury that killed 11-month-old Connor Robison.

Via a police video, jurors then saw and heard Michael Tahtinen tell investigators the day after Connor's death that he loved the boy like a son and did nothing to hurt him. He said the boy twice fell out of his playpen and he twice helped comfort him before putting him back in the playpen.

Tahtinen, 38, is standing trial in St. Louis County District Court accused of second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter in the Sept. 4, 2008, death of Connor Robison, the son of his West Duluth neighbors and friends.

The medical examiner who performed the infant's autopsy determined that the boy died from massive blood loss after an injury that lacerated his liver.

Dr. Elizabeth Kelley, a pediatric intensive care physician at St. Mary's Medical Center, testified that the baby was admitted to the emergency room at 5:55 p.m. that night. She arrived four minutes later.

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The baby was dusty-colored, cold and not breathing when Kelley first saw him. Emergency room personnel worked to establish airways to ventilate the boy. She said his chest started to move up and down. Numerous efforts, including CPR and medications to help the heart function better, were used to try to save the boy, but the attempts were fruitless. Connor was pronounced dead about 9 p.m.

Kelley testified that the only way an infant would die from a short fall like the one the defendant said Connor sustained would be if there were a head injury to an artery under the skull. Connor didn't have a head injury.

She also testified that if he had fallen from the playpen as reported by the defendant he would have most likely landed on his head and hit one side, and not had bruises across his lower rib cage as he did.

Kelley said she talked to Tahtinen the night of Connor's death. She said the defendant told her he heard a thump and found the infant wedged between the Pack-n-Play and a TV sitting on a stand. She said Tahtinen told her it happened again about 20 minutes later and the boy was again wedged between the playpen and TV and stand.

A police photograph showing the Pack-n-Play, aisle, and TV stand was projected on a screen for the witness and jurors. Kelley testified that there was too much space between the playpen and TV to cause the boy to be wedged in and suffer an entrapment type injury.

Kelley said neither the boy's fall, nor CPR efforts, could have caused the injury that he died from.

Under questioning from St. Louis County prosecutor Gary Bjorklund, Kelley said "the most important thing" is that medical literature indicates that an infant would not suffer the extensive liver injury that the dead boy received from his reported fall.

Kelley said a 15-year study of 94,000 falls of children 1 to 17 years old in structures of one and two stories revealed that none of them suffered abdominal injuries.

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Jurors were played portions of the police interview of Tahtinen conducted by then Violent Crime Unit investigators Mike Peterson and Laura Marquardt. The investigators were not accusatory in tone in the portion of the interview played for jurors.

Tahtinen said he didn't understand how it happened. He said he didn't see anything because he wasn't with the boy when it happened. He was confused. He thought the boy was asleep.

"I didn't touch him," the defendant said. "He's like a second son too me. I wasn't in the room. ... Had I done anything to him he would have been screaming. I can't explain what happened. My heart is broken. I loved that little boy."

In his opening statement, defense attorney Scott Belfry stressed to jurors that the prosecution would have to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Belfry introduced some doubt Monday. It will be up to jurors to decide how much weight to give it.

Dr. Marc Tsufis, a radiologist for Essentia Health, reviewed the CT scans of Connor's brain, chest and abdomen and testified that there was no injury to the boy's head. He also said the liver injury wasn't very common.

On cross-examination, Belfry asked Tsufis if he had written in a medical report that the boy's injury could have been an accident. The radiologist said it could have been.

In his re-direct examination of Tsufis, Bjorklund pointed out to jurors that the radiologist hadn't seen the police reports, the medical examiner's report or talked with the first responders. Tsufis agreed and said he didn't know if the injury was accidental or not.

Testimony continues today with 6th Judicial District Judge Sally Tarnowski presiding.

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