In rare move, federal judge tosses jury conviction in child's death
ST. PAUL -- In a highly unusual decision Monday, U.S. District Judge John Tunheim overturned the March jury conviction of a 40-year-old man from the Red Lake Indian Reservation who was found guilty of seriously injuring his 10-month-old son.
ST. PAUL - In a highly unusual decision Monday, U.S. District Judge John Tunheim overturned the March jury conviction of a 40-year-old man from the Red Lake Indian Reservation who was found guilty of seriously injuring his 10-month-old son.
Tunheim, in a 40-page decision, said the prosecution had failed to prove its case and ordered James White Jr. immediately released from the Sherburne County jail.
White has been jailed since last September and faced a mandatory sentence of at least 10 years in prison.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Deidre Aanstad filed a motion asking Tunheim to delay White’s release for 30 days while the government decides whether to appeal his decision to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Joseph Daly, emeritus professor of law at Hamline University, said that while it is quite common for attorneys to ask a judge to toss a guilty verdict, it is “very, very rare” for a judge to do so. “They leave it up to the jury,” he said.
Peter Wold, a well-known criminal defense attorney who was appointed by the Federal Public Defender’s office to represent White, said he’d tried about 125 cases in court, and this was the first time a judge had overturned a jury verdict.
Nonetheless, Wold said, “It is exactly what should happen. Everyone but that jury in the courtroom was stunned when they read the verdict. It wasn’t close to reasonable doubt. The alternate juror in the case came up and told us he didn’t know what happened.”
Tunheim wrote he was “extremely hesitant” to overturn. “However, in this case, justice requires an acquittal. A conviction must be supported by evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. Here, the evidence is simply insufficient.”
The alleged victim, identified only by the initials A.W., was airlifted from a hospital on the reservation to a larger hospital in Fargo, N.D., last August.
Several days later, White was arrested and ultimately indicted on a charge of assault resulting in serious bodily injury.
Tunheim said the prosecution relied on circumstantial factors that were “too weak, even in their totality, to support a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The jury deliberated for about five hours before finding White guilty, Wold said. “I have never been so demoralized by a verdict,” he said.