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Jury selection begins in case of Duluth man accused in child's death

Prospective jurors reached a unanimous verdict of sorts Monday before the trial of Michael Tahtinen even started: Each one said that looking at autopsy photographs of 11-month-old Connor Robinson and hearing how he died is going to be emotionally charged and hard to handle.

But St. Louis County prosecutor Gary Bjorklund, defense attorney Laura Zimm and presiding Judge Sally Tarnowski asked those prospective jurors if they can set aside their emotions, weigh the evidence presented in court and fairly judge Tahtinen's guilt or

innocence. Those who say they can do that will be part of the 15-member jury, including three alternates, that will begin hearing evidence either this afternoon or Wednesday morning.

Tahtinen, 38, of Duluth is charged with second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter in the Sept. 4, 2008, death of the toddler who was eight days from his first birthday.

According to the criminal complaint, the boy was found unresponsive and without a pulse by emergency personnel responding to a call that he had fallen and was possibly losing consciousness. The infant was pronounced dead at a hospital about three hours later.

Medical examiner Dr. Donald Kundel performed an autopsy and found that the boy suffered multiple tears in his liver, including a massive laceration with the tear extending deep into the organ. The death was ruled a homicide. Kundel's opinion is that the child died from massive blunt trauma to the lower chest and abdomen that produced a massive rupture of the liver.

The defense filed a motion requesting that the court prohibit Kundel from testifying that in his opinion the boy's death was the result of a "stomping." Tarnowski denied the motion. However, in a memorandum to her order, Tarnowski wrote that "the state concedes that Dr. Kundel will not testify that he believes 'stomping' was the cause (of) injuries, only that the injuries are consistent with 'stomping.' Defense counsel is free to clarify Dr. Kundel's opinion on cross- examination in order to avoid misleading the jury as to the distinction."

The court also denied the defense motion asking that three doctors be prohibited from testifying for the prosecution that the boy's injury was not from a fall from a playpen.

Twenty-three prospective jurors were on the panel when the questioning ended Monday. The voir dire will continue today. Prospective jurors filled out questionnaires last week giving the attorneys a glimpse at their backgrounds and interests. Four prospective jurors were excused after filling out questionnaires.

Nineteen prospective jurors were questioned individually on Monday. One woman was excused by the court when she said of the boy's autopsy photos: "I don't believe I can look at those. I stayed up all night thinking about it. I know I can't do it."

A 73-year-old woman was excused because she is caring for her husband, who has cancer, and she said she also would have a difficult time getting past the autopsy photos and be fair to the defendant.

The dead boy, his 3-year-old sister and his mother were visiting the Tahtinen home across the alley from their home, according to the criminal complaint. Connor was put down for a nap while his mother and Tahtinen's wife went downstairs to practice music. About 15 minutes later, Tahtinen appeared downstairs holding the crying boy, who had a small cut on his lip and a red mark on his stomach.

Tahtinen told investigators the boy apparently fell twice out of a "pack-n-play" portable crib. The defendant heard the thuds but didn't actually see the falls, he said.

Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Kristen Swanson is on the prosecution team. Scott Belfry, of the State Public Defender Trial Team, which specializes in high-profile cases that involve DNA and forensic evidence, joins Zimm in representing Tahtinen.

Once the jury is seated, eight or nine days of testimony are expected.