Today, 25 year old former day-care worker Melissa Calusinski was sentenced to 31 years for the first-degree murder of 16 month old Benjamin Kingan. This strikes me as a great injustice.
I must of course preface my remarks by stating that I was not present at the trial, and have no knowledge of the case beyond what has been reported in the media.
For those of you who don’t know, Ms. Calusinski was working at the Minee Subee day care center in January, 2009. She was a junior level day care worker. The allegations are that Ms. Calusinski became frustrated with Benjamin and threw him to the ground. The boy picked up his pacifier and blanket, then sat in his favorite bouncy seat until he went unconscious and he died shortly thereafter. In the room was his twin sister.
This case, with its allegation of the horrific murder of a defenseless toddler by a uncaring day care worker is heartbreaking. As a parent who lives near the day care center, I was horrified by this story when it was first reported, and followed it in the newspapers.
So why am I troubled by the verdict and sentence?
The evidence against Melissa Calusinki mainly consisted of her own confession, as well as the medical testimony that Benjamin died of a skull fracture. There were no eyewitnesses.
First of all, the facts surrounding Melissa’s confession raise significant concerns to anyone familiar with false confessions. She has an IQ of 74. She did not have a lawyer present. There has been all sorts of testimony and evidence indicating that she is a very simple person, easily confused and pressured. Her interrogation lasted for 10 hours. She did not offer a detailed explanation; instead the detectives put words in her mouth. The officer asked if she hurt Benjamin after being frustrated and she said “Yeah.” After her confession, she asked to see her puppy.
There was evidence at the trial that Benjamin had bruises on his body days before his death. He had been sick and was vomiting during this time. According to a co-worker, on the day of Benjamin’s death, he had a violent tantrum and threw his head back onto the ground. There was medical testimony that raised questions about the coroner’s conclusions about Benjamin’s death.
There was also testimony that Melissa was a sweet person, not prone to anger or violence. There has also been reports that the day care center was understaffed, had previous code violations, and that Melissa was put in a situation way to stressful for anyone, let alone a low IQ 22 year old.
In my opinion, the evidence did not support first degree murder. If anything, it supported a lesser charge of manslaughter, based upon the theory that Melissa was overwhelmed and unable to handle Benjamin’s tantrum, and reacted in a manner that unintentionally, but recklessly, caused his death.
If this was the case, it would be hard to see a sentence of more than 8 years.
And that’s the worst case scenario.
Although I am not sure what happened at Minee Subee that day, it is ultimately the prosecution’s burden of proof to show, beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant intentionally battered Benjamin Kingan with the intent of causing great bodily harm that lead to his death. I cannot place much faith in a confession that comes out only after hours and hours of high pressure interrogation, when the defendant is an intellectually challenged young person who likely cannot withstand any pressure and will say anything to get out (she thought) of that room. Especially when it appears that the detectives put the words into her mouth and got her to agree.
Furthermore, the State’s medical testimony was challenged by the testimony of the other day-care workers who saw Benjamin’s bruises and sickness consistent with prior head injury, the tantrum he had where he threw his head onto the ground, and the many questions raised at trial about the accuracy of the coroner’s opinion. Given that, I believe that the evidence was simply not there. Which is not to say that Melissa is innocent — just that the evidence is questionable, and in such a case, when the state fails to meet is burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant wins.
Melissa maintains her innocence, and her attorneys, including Kathleen Zellner, will appeal her conviction and sentence.