An hour into the new year, strangers Kent Gunter and Kinseth C. Sorlien crossed paths at a St. Paul bar in a violent confrontation that left Gunter blind in his left eye and Sorlien behind bars facing criminal prosecution.
Now, jurors in Sorlien’s trial in Ramsey County District Court will have to decide between two disparate versions of events presented by attorneys Tuesday: An impatient Sorlien intentionally jabbing his index and middle fingers into Gunter’s eye, or Sorlien attempting to catch his drunk mother when his fingers accidentally injured Gunter’s eye.
Sorlien, 34, who is out on bail, is being tried on one count of first-degree assault in the Jan. 1 incident at Governors Food and Drink on St. Paul’s East Side.
Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Lawrence Schultz told jurors in his opening statements that Sorlien purposely harmed Gunter.
“Everybody was pretty much in shock,” Schultz said of bar patrons’ reaction to the assault.
Gunter, 52, and Sorlien arrived at the bar separately to celebrate New Year’s Eve. As patrons were slowly filing out about 1:15 a.m., Sorlien’s mother approached Gunter to wish him a happy new year.
Sorlien and his fiancée were eager to leave, Schultz said, but were delayed by Sorlien’s mother. On his way out of the bar the first time, Sorlien smacked the back of Gunter’s head, Schultz told jurors.
Sorlien re-entered the bar to get his mother as she lingered with Gunter, who told Sorlien he shouldn’t have delivered the smack, Schultz said. That’s when Sorlien struck, he told jurors, before fleeing outside, followed by bar patrons who flagged down police.
Sorlien’s attorney, Eric Nelson, contested that account.
“Every story has two sides,” Nelson told jurors.
Nelson said Sorlien was holding his arms out, celebrating the new year when he accidentally made contact with the back of Gunter’s head.
When Sorlien re-entered the bar to get his mother, she was “fall-down drunk” and started to fall, Nelson said.
Sorlien reached around to grab her and began to fall himself, Nelson said.
“As he went to catch her, his hand came around and accidentally caught Mr. Gunter in the eye,” Nelson told jurors.
Sorlien had no clue that Gunter had been seriously injured, Nelson said.
Jurors were shown photos of Gunter at Regions Hospital, including one depicting dark tissue hanging from the corner of his eye socket.
Gunter, whose left eye was surgically removed, then took the witness stand. He testified that he had never seen Sorlien until the assault.
“It was a fun night,” said Gunter, who was well-known at the bar because his girlfriend worked there.
Gunter testified that Sorlien’s mother approached him and she was a woman in a “very happy” mood. Sorlien was impatient, he said, and wanted to leave.
Gunter said Sorlien delivered a “good, hard” slap to the back of his head and exited the bar. Gunter testified that he didn’t say anything because of the holiday. But when Sorlien re-entered the bar, Gunter said he addressed the issue.
“That was unnecessary,” Gunter said he told Sorlien. “You did not need to smack me in the back of the head like that.”
Gunter said he was walking away toward his girlfriend when Sorlien attacked him.
Gunter testified that he did not see Sorlien’s mother fall that night.