Calusinski found guilty in toddler's day care death

A Lake County jury deliberated for about seven hours Wednesday before finding Melissa Calusinski guilty of first-degree murder and aggravated battery to a child after a two-week trial.

Calusinski, 25, faces up to life in prison when she is sentenced sometime early next year in the Jan. 14, 2009, death of 16-month-old Benjamin Kingan of Deerfield.

The conviction on the most serious charges came in spite of a last-minute move by Calusinski's defense team that persuaded Lake County Circuit Judge Daniel Shanes to allow the jurors to consider two lesser offenses.

Shanes agreed to tell the eight women and four men on the jury they could convict Calusinski of involuntary manslaughter or reckless conduct in the event they did not believe she was guilty of murder or aggravated battery.

The consequences could have been significant for the Carpentersville woman, who could have been sentenced to a maximum of 10 years in prison if convicted of involuntary manslaughter, while reckless conduct in this case would have been punishable by up to three years in prison.

Benjamin's parents were in the courtroom when the verdicts were read but left without comment.

“We will appeal everything,” defense attorney Paul DeLuca said upon leaving the courtroom. “Melissa is devastated, just devastated, and I think the combination of a child's death and a confession were too much to overcome.”

Calusinski was a teacher's aide at the former Minee Subee in the Park day care center in Lincolnshire that Benjamin attended with his twin sister, Emily.

Police said she was alone in the classroom with Benjamin and seven other toddlers when she hurled Benjamin to the floor.

In two videotaped statements to police that were played for the jury, Calusinski says Benjamin was fussing as she carried him across the room, the other children present were causing a commotion and she became overwhelmed and frustrated.

Assistant State's Attorney Christen Bishop urged the jurors to convict Calusinski of murder and to reject the defense theory that Benjamin had an undetected existing head injury that he aggravated by pounding his own head on the floor.

“This is not an accident, this is not reckless, this is not a bump on the head and this is not Benjamin throwing himself backwards,” Bishop said. “Benjamin Kingan was not a ticking time bomb who exploded on her watch.”

Bishop and the other prosecutors called several physicians to testify during the trial who said Benjamin was a normal healthy toddler until the day that he died.

Dr. Eupil Choi, who performed the autopsy on Benjamin, testified that the boy hit the floor with a force equal to that of a fall from a two-story building.

Calusinski's defense had doctors as well who said Choi's autopsy was flawed in several ways and that he failed to detect numerous signs of the previous injury.

Attorney Paul DeLuca suggested the injury may have been inflicted the October before Benjamin died, when the staff at Minee Subee saw a bump on the back of his head just before a regularly scheduled doctor visit.

“Two days later, he is in the doctor's office and there wasn't a CT Scan, there wasn't an MRI,” DeLuca said. “Maybe it would have detected something, but we will never know.”

DeLuca also asked jurors to disregard his client's admissions to police, saying they were the result of professional interrogators who exploited Calusinski's low IQ and inexperience in dealing with police.

“These guys are good, they are pros,” DeLuca said. “By the time they were done with her, Melissa Calusinski thought she was going home; that is how messed up she was.”

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