MANKATO -- Former University of Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson pleaded guilty this morning to fifth-degree assault for his role in a drunken fight last May that left Isaac Kolstad with serious brain injuries and derailed Nelson's promising athletic career.
Nelson had initially been charged with two felony counts of assault that came with up to 20 years in prison. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and saw those charges dropped after a prosecutor’s medical expert said Nelson did not deliver the kick that nearly killed Kolstad. The expert said the victim’s injuries were mainly, if not all, from being punched in the head by a third man, Trevor Shelley, and hitting his head when he fell.
Nelson will be sentenced on Feb. 25 and faces a maximum of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Dozens of family members and friends mulled outside the second-floor courtroom this morning, some looking hopeful, others with strained faces. One thanked Nelson’s attorney, Jim Fleming, for all he’d done for the family. Nelson strode in with Fleming just before 8 a.m., with his supporters filling up the benches behind him on the right side of the chambers.
Nelson answered affirmatively to all of Judge Bradley C. Walker’s questions, acknowledging that he had gone to a bar in downtown Mankato on May 11 to meet friends when an argument began with Kolstad around 2 in the morning outside. He confirmed that he’d been struck in the back of the head, was treated for a concussion, and didn’t remember everything that happened that night but had seen surveillance video showing that after Kolstad struck him he fell to the ground. Shelly then knocked Kolstad to the ground.
“The video shows you approaching Mr. Kolstad and making a motion to kick Mr. Kolstad, do you know that?” Walker asked.
“Yes,” Nelson said.
“You are not contesting that those facts show you attempting to inflict bodily harm upon Mr. Kolstad?”
At Fleming’s request, Walker also lifted a prohibition on Nelson talking to witnesses – some of whom are friends – associated with the case.
It was over in 20 minutes. Afterward, Nelson hugged his supporters outside the chambers but did not address the media.
Nelson and his family are “relieved that this part is behind him,” Fleming told reporters afterward.
“From a parents’ point of view, this is a hard case to watch,” he said. “You have your children that you love, that … are capable of making mistakes, and things happen, and you just -- I don’t think there isn’t a parent in the world that … hears these facts and does not have some compassion for all the people involved.”
Asked about Nelson and his family’s interest in talking to reporters, Nelson said he didn’t think the family wanted to “say anything that inflames any situation … I think they’re just being cautious.”
On Tuesday, Nelson said in statement that he was saddened by what happened.
"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," Nelson said. "I offer my sincere apologies to everyone involved, and I wish Isaac Kolstad the best as he continues in his recovery.”
Kenneth White, an attorney for the Kolstad family, said Tuesday that they were disappointed that the county attorney's office agreed to the lesser charges. White said the family is pursuing other experts to counter the prosecution's expert, in anticipation of filing a civil suit.
The fight began when an angered Nelson shoved Kolstad, a former football player at Minnesota State, Mankato, after mistaking him for a bouncer who had kissed his girlfriend, according to a witness interview. Kolstad then knocked Nelson to the ground, but as he walked away, Shelley allegedly punched Kolstad in the head. Video shows Kolstad falling and smacking his head on the pavement. Nelson then kicked Kolstad in the head.
Nelson and Shelley, then 20 and 21 and former high school classmates, were charged with first- and third-degree assault and Nelson was kicked off the football team at Rutgers University, where he had transferred.
A prosecution expert said last week that Kolstad's injuries were mainly, if not all, due to being punched in the head by Shelley and hitting his head when he fell, rather than due to Nelson's kick. Pathologist Michael B. McGee reported that he couldn't differentiate the cause of Kolstad's severe brain injuries after reviewing CT scans, X-rays and other medical records.
Kolstad, a husband and father of two, was a 2013 graduate of University of Minnesota, Mankato and had played football there.
County Attorney Pat McDermott said afterwards that as he’s said from the beginning, the case would proceed based on medical evidence.
“We ask jurors to do their job without passion and prejudice, therefore as a prosecutor that’s what I must do as well. … It’s my job to look at this from an objective standpoint.”
Like Fleming, he acknowledged the tragedy of the case.
“Decisions made by three people in 10 seconds have changed the course of their lives for years to come,” he said.