SALT LAKE CITY — Jurors began deliberations Wednesday after a week of testimony over whether three toddlers hurt in a Murray day care were deliberately harmed by their baby sitter, or whether a series of unfortunate accidents have been lumped together and labeled a crime.
While in the care of Kami Kay Tollefson, a 16-month-old boy was hit so hard by something in 2008 that his pancreas split.
One year later, an 18-month-old boy was somehow deprived of oxygen to the point that the blood vessels in his face burst.
And a year after that, a 13-month-old girl was hit in the head, leaving internal bleeding and detached retinas.
Prosecutors have alleged that Tollefson, 45, hit, squeezed or shook the three children, then returned them to their parents with little explanation. The case has too many injuries and too many changing explanations by Tollefson to be an accident, they told the jury.
"She was a stressed individual who took her stress out on these little kids," prosecutor Clint Heiner said during closing arguments Wednesday.
But Tollefson's attorney, Scott Williams, said prosecutors' claims that the day care owner was a high-anxiety personality burdened by stress were just accusations that hadn't been supported by any facts during the trial.
Williams urged jurors not to be swayed by sympathy and emotion as they deliberate the case, but to reach a verdict based solely on the evidence.
"She did not maliciously hurt any of these children, and this case has not been proven because she did not," Williams said, walking from his position before the jury to stand with a hand on Tollefson's shoulder.
In his closing argument, Williams claimed that unproven opinions from doctors who treated the children were insufficient to convict Tollefson. He went on to emphasize that investigations into the incidents with the first two children were initially closed with no charges filed and no restrictions on Tollefson's business. A rookie investigator chose to put the cases together when a third child was injured in 2010, he said.
"They want you to believe that zero plus zero plus zero equals three," Williams said.
Tollefson is charged with three counts of child abuse, a second-degree felony, in connection with the children's injuries. The five-man, three-woman jury also has an option to convict Tollefson of a lesser offense of negligent child abuse, a class A misdemeanor, on each charge.
Heiner told the jurors that while there is an option for a lesser conviction, prosecutors are still asking them to find Tollefson guilty of intentionally and knowingly abusing the children.
The jury deliberated the case for more than five hours Wednesday before breaking for the night. It will reconvene at 8 a.m. Thursday.
Tollefson's case has dragged through the court system for eight years as the Murray woman 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.
In June 2008, 16-month-old Isaak Crandall's father picked him up from Tollefson's home, becoming immediately alarmed by his limp body, shallow breathing and grunting, and a gray pallor on his skin, Heiner said.
Doctors at Primary Children's Hospital found that blunt force trauma to Isaak's abdomen had severed his pancreas.
Tollefson offered multiple explanations, according to prosecutors, including telling Isaak's parents the boy had perhaps slipped on a toy car and fallen, or had taken a tumble down some stairs. She told police, however, that she had actually found the boy lying on the ground by a swing set, where he could have fallen or been hit by an older child.
While Heiner insisted a 4-year-old could not have inflicted such a severe injury on the toddler, Williams argued that the possibility of an accident on the swingset had not been disproven.
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. When the mother later came to pick up her son, she found his skin covered in small red dots, while his unfocused gaze wandered and dilated eyes didn't seem to recognize his mother.
After Aiden's pediatrician sent the boy to Primary Children's Hospital, it was determined the pinprick marks were burst capillaries due to lack of oxygen, apparently caused by forceful compression on his chest that kept him from breathing. Williams said there are accidental ways those injuries could have occurred.
In February 2010, 13-month-old HaLee Miller's mother came to Tollefson's home to pick her up, finding the girl lethargic and pale with hugely dilated eyes. The mother said Tollefson told her HaLee was likely tired because she hadn't taken a nap. Tollefson later told police that while she was changing HaLee, the girl had lifted herself up and thrown herself back while Tollefson reached away for a diaper, smacking her head.
When the girl vomited after getting in the car, she was rushed by ambulance and 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.Comment on this story
Pointing to evidence HaLee's brain had bled prior to that day, Williams called the girl "tragically fragile" due to the possibility that her skull was too big for her brain, leaving her prone to accidental injury.
Heiner maintained that while HaLee had experienced some illness, she was happy and healthy in the days leading up her injury in Tollefson's care.
Heiner went on to point out that once they were out of Tollefson's care and recovered, the three children didn't experience any additional problems.
"You take away the common denominator and they do just fine," Heiner said.