Overturned Child Abuse Conviction Creates Controversy

Tom Olsen

AURORA, Minn. — The Minnesota Court of Appeals on Tuesday reversed an Aurora man’s child abuse conviction, finding that the evidence in the case was insufficient to prove that his infant daughter’s injuries were deliberately inflicted.

The ruling — essentially an acquittal — overturns a St. Louis County jury’s guilty verdict in the case of 34-year-old Cole Lyle Kjellberg.

The jury in December 2013 convicted Kjellberg of third-degree assault, finding that he was responsible for head injuries suffered by 2-week-old Destinee Kjellberg. The infant sustained a skull fracture and brain hemorrhage while in her father’s care on March 8, 2013, according to court documents.

The girl’s injuries were discovered by her mother, Rita Kjellberg, when she returned home from an appointment that day and discovered a bump on the child’s head. Cole Kjellberg gave no explanation but suggested that they take the girl to the hospital, according to court testimony and documents.

While the girl was transported from a local hospital to a Duluth facility for treatment, Cole Kjellberg agreed to give a statement to St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office investigators. A deputy testified that Kjellberg appeared “visibly upset” and said he thought he had “messed up and made a mistake.”

At the Sheriff’s Office, Kjellberg offered numerous explanations for the injury, the court noted: “He may have dropped his cellphone on (Destinee’s) head; he stubbed his toe or tripped at the top of the stairs and almost dropped her; he bumped her head on a stairway wall; he was trying to juggle feeding her, answering the door, responding to his cellphone, picking up the mail and signing for a package; she wiggled in his arms and banged her head; she wiggled in his arms and he caught her against the wall.”

Kjellberg’s entire statement was played for jurors, but he did not testify. Prosecutors did not offer any medical evidence or expert testimony, other than documentation of the bump on the child’s head.

After a two-day trial, a 12-member jury unanimously convicted Kjellberg of the felony assault charge, finding him responsible for intentionally inflicting harm. Kjellberg was subsequently sentenced to 18 months in prison, which was stayed in favor three years of supervised probation, including nine months in the county jail.

On appeal, a three-judge panel agreed with Kjellberg’s contention that the evidence did not support the notion that the injuries were intentional.

“None of Kjellberg’s conflicting scenarios included an intentional act that caused the injury or demonstrated intent to harm the child,” Appeals Judge Randolph Peterson wrote in the unpublished opinion. “His actions may have been careless or negligent, and the child may have been injured accidentally, rather than intentionally assaulted.”

Gary Bjorklund, head of the criminal division of the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office, said his office is still reviewing its options in the case. It cannot be retried at the district court level, but prosecutors could petition the Minnesota Supreme Court to review the reversal.

Child abuse and neglect cases in Minnesota have come under intense scrutiny in the past year in Minnesota after reports of several controversial cases involving children under the watch of child protective services.

Locally, at least three child death cases have been prosecuted in the past year: A Duluth man in November was sentenced to 40 years in prison for suffocating his 13-month-old daughter to death; a Hibbing man faces a second-degree murder charge in the March 2012 death of a 2-year-old girl in his care; and an Itasca County man is facing life in prison for allegedly killing his 2½ -month old son in October.

Kjellberg’s case was listed in the county attorney’s annual report as one of the most “high-profile and difficult cases” prosecuted in 2013.

At the time of the incident, Kjellberg had three prior domestic violence convictions, including one involving another assault upon a child, authorities said.