A federal appeals court on Thursday overruled U.S. District Judge John Tunheim and ordered a guilty verdict reinstated for a 40-year-old man from the Red Lake Indian Reservation accused of seriously injuring his 10-month-old son in 2013.
In a highly unusual move, Tunheim had reversed the jury conviction last June, saying that the prosecution had not offered sufficient evidence to prove James White Jr. guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
The appeals court disagreed, citing numerous pieces of evidence that the appellate judges said were sufficient to allow the jury to determine guilt. In the 2-1 decision, appellate judges said Tunheim's task "was not to appraise the strength of White's defense against perceived weaknesses in the government's case. That ultimate issue belonged to the jury."
The victim in the case, identified only by the initials A.W., was airlifted from a hospital on the reservation to a larger hospital in Fargo, N.D., in August 2013 with serious injuries.
White's mother, Cheryl Maxwell, testified that she returned home on Aug. 30 to find that A.W. appeared to be choking from eating rice soup she made earlier. White was holding the baby, doing CPR, and told her to call 911.
A doctor for the prosecution testified the child had acute bleeding near the brain, which could have been caused by head trauma which he thought was "nonaccidental."
The doctor said on cross-examination that he "can't pinpoint exactly what happened or how it happened."
Tunheim wrote in his 40-page decision that the prosecution relied on circumstantial factors that were "too weak, even in their totality, to support a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."
However, appellate judges took issue with the original ruling on principle. "But a court reviewing a motion for judgment of acquittal is not a thirteenth juror with a veto," they wrote in Thursday's decision.
Staff writer Randy Furst contributed to this report.