A Murray day care owner accused of abusing three children to the point of hospitalization has been acquitted of one count of child abuse. Following the eight-day trial, the jury was hung on the other two counts.
Thursday’s split verdict came after a lengthy pre-trial process for defendant Kami Tollefson, which included 11 trial date settings — the first one scheduled for 2011 — and a plea deal that was rejected by a judge.
Tollefson was accused of assaulting three children who suffered serious injuries during a 38-month period, beginning in 2008, at a day care operated by the now-45-year-old Murray woman.
During closing arguments Wednesday, Salt Lake County Deputy District Attorney Clint Heiner told jurors that the pieces to the puzzle were laid out — they just had to put them together.
There are too many injuries and too many stories, Heiner argued. “The one common denominator is Kami Tollefson.”
Tollefson was charged in 2010 with three counts of second-degree felony child abuse.
On Thursday, after about 10 hours of deliberation over two days, a 3rd District Court jury decided there was not enough evidence to convict Tollefson. But prosecutors have the option to retry her on the two counts that the jury couldn’t agree on.
“As in all such matters, we always review and debrief about the case,” Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said in an email. “Nothing, thus far indicates that we will not be retrying the case. This is part of the process and we still believe in the prosecution of the matter.”
Defense attorney Scott C. Williams declined to comment following the verdict.
During the trial, the prosecution called a handful of doctors who testified the injuries suffered by three young children were not accidental.
The evidence was too overwhelming to be the result of coincidence, jurors were told by prosecutors.
A 16-month-old boy was hospitalized in 2008 after leaving Tollefson’s home looking gray. Doctors deduced his pancreas had been severed due to blunt-force trauma. Part of his pancreas had to be removed.
In 2009, an 18-month old boy was hospitalized after what appeared to be a rash formed on his body. Doctors said it was a hemorrhage, and the red dots were actually burst capillaries. The injury was due to heavy pressure on his chest, blocking the flow of oxygen for 30 seconds.
In front of the jury, Heiner stood in silence for 30 seconds.
“Thirty seconds is a long time for someone who’s 140 pounds to be on a child,” he told the jury panel of eight, plus two alternates.
In 2010, Shandee Miller went to pick up her 13-month-old daughter, who wasn’t making eye contact with her. The girl threw up on the side of the road. She was taken to the hospital and then flown to Primary Children’s Hospital where doctors found old and new brain bleeds and damage to her retina. It was from being shaken, doctors testified.
Tollefson was acquitted of the charge stemming from the 2009 incident.
Heiner said he doesn’t think Tollefson is the “Ted Bundy of child care,” as defense attorney Williams had proposed during opening arguments. Heiner said he is not even claiming Tollefson intended to cause the alleged damage. But common sense says she abused the children, he argued.
Heiner said Tollefson lived a stressful life. She had gone through a divorce and was responsible for paying a mortgage on a large house. She was obsessively clean, and found running a home daycare trying, he said.
“Do you have a mortgage?” Williams countered to the jury. “Does that make you hurt people?”
Williams called the prosecution’s theory “insane.”
Of the medical testimony, he said doctors are pressured by police and prosecutors to fit a narrative, and their subsequent testimony is poisonous in court.
Doctors should be appreciated for their dogmatic approach to caring for children, but they should not bring that dogma into the courtroom, Williams added.
Tollefson was never seen abusing children. And babies — the victims — can’t talk. But despite that lack of evidence, jurors can use testimony and common sense to “piece together a puzzle,” Heiner said.
Williams countered that the prosecution’s case was built on arguments from a skilled attorney, not facts.
The case almost settled in 2016, when the prosecution and defense agreed on a plea deal recommending no time in jail if Tollefson pleaded guilty to one child abuse count, and entered Alford pleas to attempted child abuse and a second child abuse charge. (An Alford plea is not an admission of guilt, but an acknowledgment that there is enough evidence to convict.)
However, victim attorney Spencer Banks and the mothers of the child victims pleaded with 3rd District Judge Randall Skanchy to reject the deal, saying it was far too lenient.
"It wasn't attempted child abuse," Miller told the judge. "It was child abuse."
Skanchy agreed, and the case dragged on for almost two more years until this month’s inconclusive trial started.