A Dakota County jury deliberated into Thanksgiving Day before convicting farmhand Tylar Hokanson of murder in the 2009 shaken-baby death of his 17-month-old stepson, Nicholas Miller.
Hokanson, 24, and his mother sobbed at the verdict and the mandatory life sentence immediately handed down by Dakota County District Judge Robert King. Hokanson and his mother were allowed to hug before deputies took him away to serve 30 years in prison before he can be considered for parole.
Hokanson was convicted of two counts apiece of first- and second-degree murder during malicious punishment and neglect of a child. Hokanson had let others believe his stepson had fallen and had asthma over a hot Father's Day weekend and until the next Tuesday, when he died in Wisconsin with a bleeding brain, broken back and crushed lungs.
Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom called it "one of the most horrific" cases of child abuse he's seen in the county in many years, since the 2002 slaying of 3-year-old Dillon Blocker of Lakeville by his mother's boyfriend, who also got life in prison.
The jury acquitted Hokanson of one count each of first- and second-degree murder during third-degree assault on a child. Backstrom said it was a long and difficult process for jurors, who deliberated about 31 hours.
"They appeared to have spent a great deal of time reviewing the evidence to make sure they made the right decision, and they did so," he said. "Justice has been served this afternoon in Hastings."
Assistant County Attorney Cheri Townsend had told jurors that Hokanson violently shook the baby on June 19, 2009, at a Northfield farmhouse and then prevented medical care that could have stopped his slow death over the next four days.
Defense attorney Lauri Traub argued that the state did not prove the cause of death and suggested the tot's biological father killed him.
Within days of the death, Hokanson admitted to Dakota County sheriff's detectives that he shook his stepson hard in rural Northfield and may have caused the death, according to his videotaped questioning. Hokanson said he kept secret that he had injured the child because he was afraid of what his own stepfather would do to him.
Among those expressing relief over the Thanksgiving Day verdicts was September Lukic, a Shoreview mother who started a Facebook page that has 1,667 supporters of Nicholas. Lukic knew Hokanson's family but never knew Nicholas. She attended closing arguments Monday.
"People around the world are mourning Nicholas' death," she said.
Lukic is among 686 supporters who have also signed a petition, begun by an Iowa woman, urging Backstrom to prosecute other adults who were in the houses where Nicholas stayed yet also failed to get him help.
"I am going to review all aspects of this case in the next several weeks to determine whether any more charges will be filed," Backstrom said Thursday. He has sent reply letters to that effect to petitioners.
The prosecutor, Townsend, said that in Nicholas' final month, he had five broken ribs from Hokanson squeezing him around the rib cage.
Unlike two collar-bone fractures that were diagnosed, Nicholas' busted ribs and other injuries went undetected until an autopsy, which found the bleeding brain, broken spine, crushed lungs, fractured arms and ruptured bowel, among other injuries.
A deputy medical examiner testified that the death could have been caused by violent shaking that sheared blood vessels around Nicholas' brain and broke his spine and nearby lymph vessels. Lymph fluid filled his lung cavity and squashed his lungs.
Among the witnesses was Hokanson's 7-year-old daughter, who said she saw her dad push down Nicholas.
"It was an accident," the girl testified, repeating it quickly and loudly twice after taking the stand. Under gentle questioning by Townsend, she said that her dad had grown angry with Nicholas as they played, and that after he pushed down Nicholas, she told her dad to "stop being mean."
Hokanson's two former cellmates testified that he told them he shook and squeezed his stepson.
Traub, one of three defense attorneys, said Nicholas' father, Brian Miller, told people that he hated his son and that a year before the child died, Miller shook Nicholas' sister. Miller testified that he regretted the comment long ago and, choking up, told how he and Nicholas later bonded.
Hokanson raised suspicions about Miller in the videotaped interview with detectives four days after the death. On the tape, jurors saw Hokanson at first deny hurting the tot.
Then Det. Dave Sjogren told him the death was a homicide. Hokanson hung his head, buried his face in his hand and wept.
"You don't see shock that this is a homicide," Townsend had told jurors. "You don't see outrage that someone did this to this child. ... You see guilt."
Joy Powell • 952-882-9017