SALT LAKE CITY — Were three toddlers who were seriously injured in a Murray day care hurt by the woman caring for them, or victims of doctors intent on finding child abuse no matter what?
That's the question a five-man, five-woman jury was asked to consider as a long-awaited trial for Kami Kay Tollefson, 45, got underway Tuesday.
Tollefson is charged with three counts of child abuse, a second-degree felony, as prosecutors allege she hit, squeezed or shook the three children, then returned them to their parents with little explanation.
The case has dragged through the court system for eight years as Tollefson changed attorneys, rescheduled trial dates and negotiated with prosecutors. The case ultimately proceeded to trial after the children's mothers implored 3rd District Judge Randall Skanchy to reject a plea deal that would have required no jail time and no admission of guilt from Tollefson.
Prosecutor Donna Kelly summarized the details of the children's injuries in opening statements Tuesday, asking for guilty verdicts on behalf of the three toddlers who were too young to fight back or tell anyone what was happening to them.
"Too many injuries, too many stories, and one common denominator," Kelly said, pointing back at Tollefson as she spoke. "That's what this case is about."
But Scott Williams, Tollefson's attorney, said his client has been blamed for a series of accidents after the frightened parents became "victims of hasty, dogmatic conclusions" by doctors "looking for child abuse" in any injury. He urged the jurors not to be swayed by sympathy for the children or impassioned pleas, but to look at the evidence.
"Take into consideration that these poor parents, who have just been told that Kami Tollefson is the Ted Bundy of child care, that affects how they remember things," Williams told the jury.
Williams emphasized that police investigations into the first two children's injuries in 2008 and 2009 were initially closed with no charges filed and no restriction on Tollefson continuing her day care business in her home. Tollefson was charged in 2010, when a third child was injured.
In all three cases, Williams noted, the children recovered.
In June 2008, 16-month-old Isaak Crandall's father picked him up from Tollefson's home, becoming immediately afraid at the sight of him, Kelly said. He was limp, his breathing was shallow, he was grunting and his skin looked gray.
At the time, Kelly said, Tollefson told the alarmed father she believed the boy was teething. She later said he may have slipped on a toy car and fallen, or taken a tumble down some stairs. She told police, Kelly said, that she had actually found the boy lying on the ground by a swing set.
Isaak was taken to see a doctor and rushed immediately to Primary Children's Hospital, where it was discovered his pancreas had been severed due to "tremendous force," compared to being stomped on by a bull, Kelly said.
Williams countered that with no obvious external injuries, Tollefson had no way of knowing Isaak had been hurt or what had happened to him. When questioned by the parents and police, she did her best to help, he said.
In April 2009, Tollefson sent a text to the mother of 18-month-old Aiden Campbell saying the boy had gotten up from his nap with a rash. The mother later came to pick up her son, finding his skin covered in small, red dots. But more concerning was the way his unfocused gaze wandered, his dilated pupils and his apparent lack of awareness of his mother or his surroundings, Kelly said.
The boy's pediatrician urged the mother to take Aiden to Primary Children's Hospital, where the mysterious red dots, which didn't appear to be raised or irritating like a common rash, were actually tiny burst blood vessels from "positional asphyxia," Kelly said.
In that case, Williams noted an investigation was again closed without charges filed, and "life went on at the day care."
In February 2010, Tollefson was caring for 13-month-old HaLee Miller. The girl appeared "stunned and lethargic" with dilated eyes when her mother came to get her at the end of the day, Kelly said, and Tollefson said she hadn't gone down for a nap. The mother also said Tollefson told her the girl had thrown a fit during a diaper change and slammed her head on the floor, and at one point had gotten out of a playpen while Tollefson wasn't looking.
As the woman drove away, HaLee vomited, and a family member who is a nurse urged the mother to call 911. HaLee was ultimately rushed by medical helicopter to Primary Children's Hospital, where doctors said she had been violently shaken by someone of adult strength, causing bleeding in her brain, Kelly said.
But Williams said HaLee had experienced these episodes of slamming her own head back before, and doctors at the hospital also found evidence of previous hemorrhaging from an unknown date in the girl's brain. Witnesses during the trial will testify of the risk of "re-bleeding" that can occur spontaneously, he said, and that shaking isn't the only possible cause of such injuries.
"She's not guilty, did not cause these injuries in these vicious ways, the evidence won't prove it," Williams said.
Among the first witnesses in the trial was pediatrician Richard Greenberg, who had evaluated Aiden when he came to Primary Children's Hospital a day after the rash appeared on his skin at Tollefson's day care.
In his notes that day, Greenberg testified he had noted the petechial hemorrhaging that can result from a lack of oxygen was "very prominent" and "extensive" across the child's face, neck and onto his chest. While Greenberg said he would have indicated in his notes if there had been 10 or 12 little red petechiae marks, but there were dozens.
"It was much more clear to me on the examination than it is in the photos," Greenberg said.Comment on this story
He determined that the petechia had been caused by compression of Aiden's thorax, and based on the location and amount of marks, it wasn't likely an accident or a result of another small child's actions.
"If it had gone on long enough it could have caused substantial brain damage or death," Greenberg said.
Greenberg is set to be cross-examined by Tollefson's attorneys on Wednesday. In his opening arguments, Williams had urged jurors to pay just as much attention to cross-examination as they did to testimony from the state's witnesses.
Tollefson's trial is expected to continue until March 14.