Mom pleads guilty to manslaughter in toddler's death

  • Article by: PAT PHEIFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 10, 2012 - 12:06 AM

The judge said she wants to know more before ruling on the plea, which calls for six months to a year in jail.

Nicholas Miller

Seventeen-month-old Nicholas Miller lingered for four days with a broken back and bleeding brain after his stepfather mortally injured him back in June 2009. Nobody called a doctor. Nobody took him to a hospital. Nobody called an ambulance until he stopped breathing.

On Friday, the boy's mother, Melissa L. Ohmann (formerly Hokanson) sat between her attorneys, her mother's arm draped around her shoulders, as she told Dakota County District Judge Erica MacDonald that she would plead guilty to second-degree manslaughter.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys told the judge that they had reached an agreement in which Ohmann, 20, would plead guilty in exchange for a sentence ranging from six months to a year in the county jail. The four-year sentence called for by state guidelines would be stayed if she complies with terms and conditions of probation.

MacDonald said she needed more information before accepting the plea. She ordered a pre-sentence investigation, including a psychiatric examination, and told the attorneys they could submit memorandums in support of the agreement before the sentencing hearing June 12.

But some are already calling the punishment too light. September Lukic, a Shoreview mother of five, never knew Nicholas or his family but started a Facebook page in his memory after reading news coverage of the case. Along with other sympathetic strangers, she started an e-mail campaign calling for justice for the little boy.

"Six months to a year when they say she could have saved her child is unbelievable to me," Lukic said. "In my mind she's just as guilty as [the boy's stepfather]. She may not have been able to stop what happened that night, but she could have taken him to the doctor the next morning. ... She was his protector. She was supposed to take care of him."

The county attorney's office stood behind the deal for Ohmann.

"She did not commit the abuse; she did not observe the abuse being committed," Chief Deputy County Attorney Phil Prokopowicz said Friday. "So, in light of that, in light of her age, in light of the fact that she has no criminal history and she's extremely remorseful and has lost a child, we believe the negotiated settlement is appropriate."

Yet in July 2010, County Attorney Jim Backstrom pointed to a similar case in which Steven McBride was sentenced to life in prison for the 2001 murder of his girlfriend's 3-year-old son. The boy's mother, Denise Patch of Lakeville, was sentenced to eight years in prison for neglect and child endangerment, including failure to get emergency medical care.

"Although she struck no blow and committed no direct act of abuse herself, Denise Patch knew that her son had been the victim of repeated abuse and that his health and safety was at risk and yet she did nothing to protect him by reporting these injuries to proper authorities," Backstrom said at the time.

Said Prokopowicz: "The difference here is that Melissa was not aware that Nicholas had been physically abused. In the Denise Patch case, there was evidence to indicate that she knew her child was being abused by Steven McBride."

Ohmann's former husband, Tylar Hokanson, 25, was convicted in November 2010 of first- and second-degree murder in Nicholas' death and is serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 30 years.

He and Melissa Ohmann married when Nicholas was 8 months old and testimony at Hokanson's trial indicated that he had abused the boy in the past. The baby the couple had together suffered broken ribs when he was 2 weeks old.

According to court documents, the fatal injuries to Nicholas happened the evening of June 19, 2009. Ohmann wasn't in the room when Nicholas was abused, but she testified at Hokanson's trial that she heard a "terror scream" from her son. She found him looking scared, puzzled and upset.

Under questioning Friday from her attorney, Christopher Lehmann, Ohmann agreed that over the intervening days, Nicholas wasn't eating, didn't walk, seemed uncomfortable and in pain and didn't even want his favorite toys. The boy grew more and more pale and had a distinct odor.

Ohmann admitted that nothing prevented her from taking her son to the doctor. She agreed that a doctor hired by the defense came to the same conclusion as the forensic pathologist who testified at Hokanson's trial: Nicholas could have survived had he been taken to a hospital.

Nicholas died on June 23, 2009, as Hokanson and another relative tried to revive him on a picnic table at Hokanson's mother's home in Maiden Rock, Wis. By then, an ambulance was on its way.

Ohmann does not have custody of her two surviving children.

Pat Pheifer • 952-746-3284

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