The photos of her dying toddler were too much for Melissa Hokanson, who viewed them on the stand as she testified Friday against her husband in his first-degree murder trial in Hastings.
A Dakota County prosecutor told jurors the 19-year-old mother lost her child to shaken-baby syndrome at the hands of stepfather Tylar Hokanson.
He's been indicted on three counts of first-degree murder, including for allegedly failing to stop the slow death by telling nobody that he hurt 17-month-old Nicholas Miller. Hokanson, 24, also faces three counts of second-degree murder in the death last year in Pierce County, Wis. The trial will continue this week.
Melissa Hokanson, of Greenvale Township in southern Dakota County, where the injuries allegedly occurred, did not look at her husband while testifying.
She told of Nicholas' bruises and broken clavicles after she met Tylar Hokanson in summer 2008. She also told of his punishment of the boy and about hearing Nicholas' "terrified scream" on June 19, 2009.
Authorities say his death four days later could have been prevented with medical care.
An autopsy found bleeding on the brain. The state alleges shaking caused Nicholas' brain to hit his skull, and bleeding then pressured his brain.
His spine was severed, as were blood and lymph vessels. His lung cavity filled with fluid, squishing his lungs. He had bruises and cuts including to his mouth and tongue.
He also had five ribs broken in prior weeks and fractures of his clavicles in recent months.
Three of the photos were taken two days before the toddler died at his stepgrandmother's house. In the photos, he lay on a couch from which he did not move, according to his mother's testimony.
In one photo Nicholas looks upward, eyebrows knitted and mouth crumpled. It's a look of discomfort, Assistant County Attorney Cheri Townsend said.
Melissa Hokanson wept then but went on to testify -- until another batch of photos later caused her to break down. Court recessed early.
Hours earlier, jurors watched a video in which Tylar Hokanson confessed to shaking Nicholas, using a rag doll provided by sheriff's investigators.
"I shook him, and then all of a sudden, it was like, 'What in the hell am I doing?'" Hokanson told the detectives.
Part of his confession was suppressed, however, including admissions that he caused "a couple" of the injuries.
After an earlier evidentiary hearing, Judge Robert King threw out the last part of Hokanson's confession. As admissions grew more incriminating and Hokanson figured he was going to jail, he should have been given a Miranda warning but was not, the judge ruled.
Melissa Hokanson told jurors of that Friday evening when she left a bedroom for a minute and then heard Nick's "terrified scream."
She rushed back to see Tylar standing next to the bed, looking "scared," and her son seated, looking "tired and overwhelmed." She asked Tylar what happened, and he told her to stop accusing him of beating Nick, Melissa testified.
Over the next four days, the boy stopped eating and moving and he became unable to hold up his head. He cried when he saw Tylar, and he drooled and smelled oddly. The last day, his mother said, she planned to take Nicholas to the doctor if a nap didn't help.
But his breathing slowed way down. Then it stopped.
Joy Powell • 952-882-9017