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Odd question asked in jury selection for Duluth toddler-death trial

Michael Virgil Tahtinen is charged with second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter in the Sept. 4, 2008, death of Connor Robison, who was eight days from his first birthday at the time of his death.

Nine women and six men told Judge Sally Tarnowski, prosecutors and defense attorneys Tuesday that they could set aside their emotions and fairly weigh the evidence presented in court to determine whether a Duluth man is innocent or guilty of killing an 11-month-old boy.

Opening statements are expected this morning in St. Louis County District Court in the trial of Michael Tahtinen, 38, who is charged with second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter in the Sept. 4, 2008, death of Connor Robinson, who was eight days from his first birthday.

The jury includes two women who have worked as registered nurses and three alternate jurors.

St. Louis County prosecutor Gary Bjorklund asked each prospective juror a series of about a dozen questions. The voir dire process is used to determine if any prospective juror is biased and cannot deal with the issues fairly, or if there is cause not to allow a juror to serve such as acquaintanceship with the parties, witnesses or attorneys or an occupation that might lead to bias, among other reasons.

Among the questions was a head-scratcher: He wanted to know if jurors had seen the movie "The Princess Bride." Most had not. One man who did said one of the movie's characters -- Vizzini -- seemed to think he was smarter than he really was. Bjorklund affirmatively nodded his head, but never made clear what he was getting at.

Only Bjorklund and his co-prosecutor Kristen Swanson know the significance of that question. Was he referring to medical experts coming in from out of town to testify for the defense? Was he implying that the defendant thinks he's smarter than he really is?

Bjorklund declined to say whether he would be talking about "The Princess Bride" in his opening statement.

Other questions Bjorklund asked the panel were:

# Have you ever gotten frustrated with a child?

# Is it ever OK to hit a child?

# Do you have a "pack-n-play" portable crib and did any children fall out of it?

# Did you ever seek a second medical opinion?

# Are doctors ever motivated by something other than patient care?

# Have you ever called 911?

# Have you ever read any news reports about doctors?

# Do you think you can look at a doctor's testimony critically?

# Do you think a doctor from outside Duluth is inherently more qualified?

There is expected to be conflicting medical expert testimony from the prosecution and defense regarding how the boy died.

Public defenders Laura Zimm and Scott Belfry are representing Tahtinen.

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 out of a portable crib 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.