After deliberating less than two hours, a Hennepin County jury convicted a woman of first-degree murder for shooting her 6-year-old son nine times inside her car and hiding his body in the trunk, where it was later discovered by Orono police during a traffic stop.
Jurors received the case Wednesday afternoon after four days of testimony in the trial of Julissa Thaler for the killing of Eli Hart on May 20, 2022. Prosecutors said Thaler, 29, six times pulled the trigger of a shotgun she bought three days earlier, reloaded it and fired three more times.
When the clerk for District Judge Jay Quam read out the guilty verdicts, Thaler made no visible reaction while Hart's family audibly wept.
Quam will sentence Thaler on Feb. 16. The conviction carries an automatic life sentence.
Because the trial was so traumatic, jurors are being offered free crisis counseling.
"Eli's brutal murder is one of the most horrific cases I have encountered in 30 years working in the criminal legal system," said Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty.
"Nothing will ever fill the emptiness Eli's father and other loved ones now live with every day, but I'm hopeful this verdict will make it just a bit easier to remember Eli as the toothless, happy, smiling little boy we have seen in photos."
Eli's family extended gratitude to Assistant Hennepin County Attorneys Dan Allard and Britta Rapp, as did Orono police lead investigator Kyle Kirschner, who assisted the prosecution by creating a trail of evidence pointing to Thaler's guilt.
During closing arguments, Thaler's attorney acknowledged that she was guilty of participating in her son's killing but said she's not the one who pulled the trigger at point-blank range.
"She destroyed evidence, lied to police, ran away, but they have not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the gun was in her hands when it was fired nine times into her son," said defense attorney Bryan Leary.
Leary declined to call any witnesses, including Thaler, who told Quam that she was advised to not testify in her own defense.
Kirschner was the last to take the witness stand, testifying Wednesday morning that he was shocked to see the boy's body inside the car's trunk.
"Never in my imagination did I believe I would pop the trunk and find a dead child," he said.
When Allard asked Kirschner if Eli appeared dead, the officer replied: "It couldn't be more obvious." Graphic details of the child's mutilated body from the shotgun blasts capped testimony that began Friday.
Thaler's attorneys said prosecutors failed to prove she shot her son or acted alone. They questioned why officers allowed her to go home while they searched the vehicle.
Police stopped Thaler that morning for driving with a shattered back windshield and a missing front tire. The tire rim left markings on roads and parking lots that law enforcement used to trace Thaler's whereabouts that were confirmed by eyewitness testimony of people who saw her at area gas stations.
Inside dumpsters, police recovered her son's backpack containing worksheets and kindergarten assignments with "Eli" written in the top right corner, a car booster seat covered in blood with a large bullet hole, clothing and human remains.
Prosecutors also said that cellphone tracking data placed Thaler's phone in all relevant locations of the discarded items from the vehicle, showing a crime scene that spanned Spring Park to Mound and a secluded parking lot at Lake Minnetonka Regional Park in Minnetrista, where the shooting took place.
Leary said there was no other phone with hers, but the absence of such evidence doesn't prove she acted alone. He added there were no eyewitness, no confession and no "jailhouse snitch," photo or video.
Allard said prosecutors didn't have to prove Thaler's motive. But they said a mountain of evidence suggested she could have killed the boy for money after having taken out life insurance policies or that her mental health and the child custody battle with his father prompted the slaying.
Kirschner testified that the investigation included a probe of electronic devices and internet search history on Thaler's Google account in the months before Eli's death. Searches included: how to load a shotgun, the most powerful knockout drug, payment from life insurance if child dies, and how much blood a 6-year-old can lose.
Thaler's co-counsel Rebecca Noothed said prosecutors could not prove that she was the person who searched the terms. She said Kirschner excluded other Google inquires regarding Red Cross blood donations.
Allard cited the testimony of Thaler's former boyfriend, Robert Pikkarainen, who said that he, Thaler and Eli spent the day before the killing going to Target and Family Dollar before returning to her apartment in Spring Park.
"Everything seemed normal at that time. Eli was happy," Allard said.
Pikkarainen testified they had pizza, watched a movie and played with kittens. But when Eli didn't want to go to bed, Pikkarainen testified, Thaler had a disagreement with her son. She left the apartment with the child, taking the shotgun with her.
Noothed also said the state failed to prove Thaler was the only one with Eli, but prosecutors say surveillance video at her apartment shows her leaving with her son the night of May 19 while Pikkarainen remained behind. He wasn't shown leaving until Thaler returned the next morning. They both fled before police arrived after discovering the body.
"You have no idea who she might've interacted with during that period of time or if anyone else was in the car with her," Noothed said to Kirschner, who agreed.
Allard showed jurors a document found in Thaler's apartment that contained a handwritten spreadsheet listing herself and Eli as beneficiaries, insurance companies and claim amounts.
He said one of the biggest pieces of evidence was Eli's DNA, which was found in Thaler's hair and on her skin and clothes when she was pulled over.
If she didn't shoot him, Allard said, then why did she drive around with her son in the trunk for hours that morning and not tell police when she was stopped. Instead, Allard said, she repeatedly lied and tried running away after attempting to cover up the death.
"As horrible as it sounds and to think a mother could do this to their own 6-year-old son," he said, "she did."