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Child abuse expert: Duluth murder defendant's story 'inconceivable'

Michael Virgil Tahtinen of Duluth is accused of killing his neighbor's 11-month-old child.

Dr. Richard Kaplan told jurors on Tuesday that he would rather have been playing with children than testifying in the trial of Michael Tahtinen, who is accused of murdering 11-month-old Connor Robison.

Kaplan is a medical expert in "child abuse pediatrics." He said children are his passion. In his specialty, Kaplan tries to assess injuries in children and determine whether they are the result of abuse.

Under questioning by St. Louis County prosecutor Gary Bjorklund, Kaplan testified that it is "inconceivable" that Connor could have suffered the lacerated liver and injuries to his pancreas, small bowel, adrenal gland and kidney as a result of a 30-inch fall from a playpen to a carpeted floor.

Kaplan told jurors that kids fall all the time. It's part of their job description, he said. But they are resilient and rarely suffer serious injuries. He said he wouldn't expect a child who fell 30 inches to suffer any significant injury.

Tahtinen, 38, told police that he twice picked the infant off the floor after he fell out of the playpen at his house on Sept. 4, 2008. The boy died from his injuries later that night.

Tahtinen, 38, is standing trial in St. Louis County District Court on charges of second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter.

Kaplan is an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities and is medical director of the Center for Safe and Healthy Children at the U of M Amplatz Children's Hospital. The center is dedicated to caring for victims, or potential victims, of child and adolescent maltreatment, abuse and neglect. During a 30-year career, he's received two national awards for his work in the field of child abuse and just finished one of two textbooks he is working on in his field.

When asked by public defender Scott Belfry whether Connor's injuries could have been the result of extensive CPR efforts, Kaplan testified that CPR didn't cause the injuries. Belfry asked the witness if he was saying that CPR would never cause such injuries to an infant.

Kaplan responded: "It would be exceedingly rare if done correctly."

When Belfry pressed further, the doctor said, "I think it's impossible."

After several days of seeing autopsy photos of the dead boy, jurors on Tuesday were shown two photos of a hearty and smiling Connor when he was 6 to 10 months old.

Durwood Robison III, Connor's father, testified that his son was a healthy child, with his most serious medical issue being dry skin. He called his son "a good little boy, who was always happy and smiled a lot.'' He said the boy didn't even cry when he was teething. He said Connor was flirtatious and could draw a flock of people when he was out in public.

Robison said his son had started walking, "wandered all over," played in a sand box and had climbed the slide in the family's yard.

The attorneys didn't ask the father his opinion of what happened to his son, and he didn't offer one.

After the prosecution rested its case and jurors had been excused for the day, public defender Laura Zimm argued to the court that the state failed to prove its case and Tahtinen should be acquitted without the case going to the jury. It's a relatively routine request made by the defense at trial.

Zimm argued that even if jurors agreed with prosecution witnesses that Connor's liver injury could not have been caused by falling from the portable crib, "the fact remains that the state has provided no evidence to support a finding that the defendant assaulted the child or inflicted malicious punishment on the child. The state has produced no witness who observed the defendant strike or harm Connor in any way, nor is there any evidence produced to suggest that the defendant was angry or agitated that day," Zimm wrote in her written motion.

St. Louis County co-prosecutor Kristen Swanson countered by arguing that the state's case is built on circumstantial evidence and that it's not uncommon in child abuse cases for there to be no witnesses to the abuse.

Judge Sally Tarnowski ruled that there is sufficient evidence to present to the jury to consider and denied the defense motion to acquit the defendant.

The trial is in recess until Monday. Tarnowski told jurors that scheduling issues with expert witnesses is the reason for the delay. Testimony is expected to conclude Tuesday or Wednesday of next week.