Former University of Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson is expected to plead guilty Wednesday to fifth-degree assault, a lesser charge than originally brought in the Mankato fight that left Isaac Kolstad severely injured in May.
Nelson was originally charged with two felony counts of assault and faced up to 20 years in prison in the alcohol-infused fight that left Kolstad fighting for his life. But earlier in January, a prosecution medical expert said Nelson had little, if anything, to do with the severe brain injuries that Kolstad suffered.
The expert found that a punch delivered by a third man and Kolstad’s head smacking the pavement were the main cause of the injuries, not Nelson’s kick. Trevor Shelley, of St. Peter, also faces assault charges in the attack.
Nelson’s attorney, Jim Fleming, said his client now faces a maximum sentence of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
“I am saddened by what happened on May 11, 2014,” Nelson said in a statement his attorney released Tuesday. “I still don’t remember what happened that night after I was hit in the head, but I recognize that I let down my family and friends by my actions. I offer my sincere apologies to everyone involved, and I wish Isaac Kolstad the best as he continues in his recovery.”
Nelson, whose college football career was left in shambles after the fight, filed a petition to enter a plea of guilty to a misdemeanor and felony charges against him will be dropped, the statement said. He is expected to appear in court for a plea hearing Wednesday morning.
An attorney for the Kolstad family, Kenneth White, said they were “disappointed” in the county attorney’s decision to offer the plea agreement. “We believe that there is still expert testimony to be generated that may well impact that decisionmaking,” White said, adding that he is pursuing other experts in anticipation of filing a civil suit.
Blue Earth County prosecutor Pat McDermott said it’s his job to make decisions without emotion and from the standpoint of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. He asked pathologist Michael B. McGee, the Ramsey County medical examiner contracted with Blue Earth, to look at the evidence. McGee’s conclusion was similar to that of a defense medical expert, McDermott said.
“From the very beginning of this case I had indicated that this case would turn in large part on medical testimony and medical information,” McDermott said.
According to the transcript of a witness interview with police, an angered Nelson shoved Kolstad, a 2013 graduate of Minnesota State, Mankato, and a former football player for the university, after mistaking him for a bouncer who had kissed his girlfriend.
Kolstad knocked Nelson to the ground, but as he walked away, a third man punched Kolstad in the head. Surveillance video shows Kolstad dropping to the ground, his head smacking the pavement. Nelson then kicked Kolstad in the head. The fight lasted seconds.
McGee said it was his overall impression that Kolstad’s injuries were mainly and perhaps entirely due to being punched in the head and his head hitting the pavement when he fell, not Nelson’s kick.
Kolstad, a husband and father of two, is continuing to work on his recovery, according to his CaringBridge site. He walked onto the Mankato State football field with his old teammates at one game in the fall, but he still struggles to speak and is going to various forms of therapy in Golden Valley three days a week. He recently met a goal of being able to shower by himself while standing up.
White, the Kolstads’ attorney, added that the family “hopes that everyone will remember … that it was a series of decisions made by Philip Nelson that led to where we are today.”
White said Nelson, who was 20 at the time, decided to go out, drink underage and react when his girlfriend was kissed by a bouncer. “He made the decision to accost Isaac and accuse him of kissing his girlfriend, and he made the decision to begin the physical altercation with Isaac by shoving him,” White said. “A break at any point in that chain probably eliminates where we are today.”
Nelson sustained a concussion as a result of being knocked to the ground, his lawyer’s statement said. Nelson suffers from post-traumatic amnesia, an aftereffect of the concussion, and doesn’t have a memory of the May 11 incident but “has reviewed the video and acknowledges what he did,” the statement said.
Nelson’s father, Pat Nelson, said Tuesday that the family is grateful that the felony charges are being dropped.
“We are just happy that this is finally coming to an end, and Philip is able to get on with his life and get back to his dream of playing football,” he said.
Pat Nelson said his son is trying to find a school and enroll this semester in order to be eligible to play football in the fall. Philip Nelson will have two years of eligibility left.
Nelson, a Mankato high school football star, started at the University of Minnesota for two seasons. He was kicked off the Rutgers University football team days after he was criminally charged.
It is unclear what his football future might hold.
Attorneys expect that a judge will take Nelson’s plea Wednesday, then order a pre-sentence investigation for sentencing at a later date.