Anoka murder case has rare testimony following plea

  • Article by: DAVID CHANEN
  • Star Tribune
  • July 19, 2012 - 6:51 AM

Anoka County District Judge Tammi Fredrickson spent several hours Tuesday hearing a doctor testify that a baby didn't die from shaking by her father -- testimony that came three weeks after Joshua VanHoutan entered a plea that will send him to prison for his daughter's death.

In a highly unusual ruling, the judge is allowing VanHoutan's attorney to present two medical experts who would have taken the stand had the case gone to trial. The defense aims to convince Fredrickson that the Coon Rapids man is less culpable for the baby's death and warrants a shorter prison sentence.

"Joshua wants to get out of jail as soon as he can and be reunited with his family, including the mother of his children," said Steve Meshbesher, VanHoutan's attorney. "He was scared of a trial. This isn't a pretty case. He cries when he talks about the loss of his child."

VanHoutan, 26, of Coon Rapids, was charged in May 2011 with unintentional second-degree murder in the death of 5-month-old Alexis VanHoutan. In accepting an agreement with prosecutors, Meshbesher said VanHoutan insisted on an Alford plea, which means he maintained his innocence but conceded that enough evidence existed for the prosecution to gain a conviction. The prosecution also agreed not to pursue a significantly enhanced sentence available when a victim is particularly vulnerable.

VanHoutan faces 10 1/2 to 15 years in prison under state sentencing guidelines. Meshbesher said that in considering the post-plea testimony, the judge could depart and impose a sentence closer to four years, in the range for a manslaughter charge.

'Unusual type of hearing'

At one point Tuesday, Fredrickson described it "as unusual type of hearing."

According to court documents, the baby's mother, Tina Ginter, told police that VanHoutan called her at work on May 11, 2011, to say something was wrong with Alexis. The mother went home and took Alexis to a hospital, where brain injuries were diagnosed. Alexis died several days later after life support was removed.

VanHoutan told police that Alexis had been crying "a little bit" and seemed to be a little sleepier than usual that morning and that she would open her eyes only "a little bit," according to the charges against him. When he put the baby back to sleep, he said, she cried briefly and settled down. A few minutes later, he said, she wouldn't wake up and was limp.

Meshbesher said that Ginter was in court Tuesday and that she and VanHoutan decided together that he would take a plea deal. Half the gallery Tuesday was occupied by supporters of VanHoutan.

Doctor's testimony

The courtroom audience listened intently to the testimony of Dr. John Plunkett, a forensic pathologist and former coroner of the Minnesota Regional Medical Examiner's Office in Hastings. He estimated that he had performed more than 200 autopsies on children younger than 2 during his career.

Plunkett was paid $3,500 for reviewing every medical and police report and physical evidence connected to Alexis' death. He concluded that she died from the expansion of a chronic subdural hematoma, a collection of fluid from bleeding in the brain. This condition can exist without a trauma to the head, he said.

In fact, Plunkett insisted there wasn't any type of trauma that caused the baby's death because she had no visible injuries or neck damage. He also said that shaking didn't contribute to her death. VanHoutan did not deny shaking Alexis.

During cross-examination, prosecutor Paul Young questioned Plunkett's qualifications to use biomechanics, the study of the structure and function of biological systems, to analyze the cause of Alexis' death. Plunkett agreed that shaking can cause new bleeding in a person with a chronic subdural hematoma and that it is possible to shake a baby to death.

From his review of the case records, Plunkett said, the baby appeared to be in good health just hours before she was brought to the hospital. Young asked whether Plunkett recalled any documentation regarding a bruise Alexis had on her skull three weeks before she died, and Plunkett said he didn't remember.

On Friday, Fredrickson will hear from the other expert witness, Dr. Thomas Carlstrom, a pediatric neurosurgeon "who knows the case inside and out," Meshbesher said. VanHoutan will be sentenced Sept. 12.

"We were prepared to go to trial, but this is a choice he made," Meshbesher said. "He is just sad. He loves his kids, and he doesn't believe he did anything wrong."

David Chanen • 612-673-4465

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