Amicus lector
What the Ally murder trial tells us about toddler death cases

The murder trial of Congolese refugee Managabe Ally this week followed a familiar script.

Prosecutors blamed Ally, the last adult alone with 18-month-old Merveil Kasangu, for the child’s death. Kasangu died from blunt force trauma on Christmas Day in 2012.

Ally says Kasangu fell off an adult bed on Christmas Eve. From the moment police and EMTs arrived that day, Ally has maintained that he doesn’t know exactly how the injuries happened (he wasn’t in the room when the child fell, he says).

A jury decided yesterday that Ally was not guilty of the most egregious charges filed against him – first- and second-degree murder. They did, however, convict him on four counts of manslaughter.

The manslaughter conviction carries a sentence of up to life in prison. Murder would have brought an automatic sentence of life without parole.

Essentially, the jury decided that Ally did cause the child’s death, but that there was no premeditation (an element of first-degree murder) and that his behavior - whatever it was - didn’t show evidence of a depraved mind (an element of second-degree murder).

The nearest parallel in Minnehaha County is the case of Christopher Brian Fisher. Fisher, like Ally, was the boyfriend of the victim’s mother. He was left alone with the child, a 15-month-old named Preston Vensand, the night before Thanksgiving in 2008.

Fisher found the boy unresponsive that morning.

Like Ally, Fisher’s theory of the victim’s fatal abusive head trauma involved a fall: Fisher said the child fell in the bathtub the night before.

Like Ally, he accused Sioux Falls police detectives of pushiness, saying they refused to believe his story through hours of questioning.

Unlike Ally, Fisher did admit to shaking the child after that questioning, changing his story multiple times. Ally’s story remained fairly consistent from the start (there were some variations in his explanations about when he did the dishes before hearing Kasangu scream and the location where the boy was found, but no huge diversions).

There’s a familiar character in both trials: Dr. Janice Ophoven, the former Hennepin County Coroner who now consults for defense teams in “shaken baby” or abusive head trauma cases. She testified in both cases, reviewing autopsy results and relaying her findings to judges and juries. She’s testified in several other cases in Minnehaha County, as well.

Ophoven doesn’t believe in “shaken baby syndrome.” The science doesn’t support the diagnosis, she says. She also tends to find numerous explanations for head trauma that could explain what police generally see as clear signs of battery.

Ophoven’s testimony led to the tossing of murder charges against a man named Dustin Two Bulls in 2011, after a judge ruled that the medical evidence did not clearly support the prosecution’s version of events in the death of Deryun Wilson.

Ophoven is not alone in her belief that the “shaken baby” diagnosis unfairly points fingers at the last caregiver of a child: Dozens of convictions have been overturned in recent years.

All of this is to say that cases of a toddler death involving abusive head trauma are hard to make for prosecutors, especially if there are no witnesses or confessions.

A lot of the same issues are sure to present themselves in the fall, when Joseph Patterson goes on trial for the death of Tyrese Robert Ruffin in October.

Patterson was the live-in boyfriend of the boy, who happened to be the child of NFL star Adrian Peterson (who met Ruffin while the boy was on life support), and was the only one in the apartment when the child stopped breathing.

Patterson’s lawyer said his client admitted to nothing during a bond hearing last year. There was a sugary substance on the boy’s lips, he said, supporting a theory of possible choking.

Will a jury accept an alterative theory in that case? Is a manslaughter conviction – which leaves open the possibility of parole – be more a more likely outcome?

We’ll have to wait and see. Here’s something you can bank on: Ally’s conviction will be appealed. Fisher’s was, unsuccessfully. 

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