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'48 Hours' features Chicago-area woman convicted of toddler's murder


Melissa Calusinski

A Chicago-area woman convicted of killing a toddler by slamming him to the floor at a child care center tearfully said during the "48 Hours" news show Saturday that she was coerced into confessing to the crime after spending nearly 10 hours in an interrogation room.

Melissa Calusinski is serving a 31-year prison sentence for the murder of 16-month-old Benjamin Kingan, who was under her care at a Lincolnshire day care center. Workers at Minee Subee Daycare Center called for help after the Deerfield toddler became unresponsive in January 2009.

"I would never hurt a child," Calusinski said on the show.

When asked why she confessed to becoming frustrated and throwing Benjamin to the floor, she said. "I've never been in this situation ever. I didn't even know what was going through my mind."

The show, titled "Blaming Melissa," questioned the length of time Calusinski was interviewed by investigators and whether Benjamin had suffered a prior brain injury that could have caused his death.

Calusinski's family members and Lake County Coroner Thomas Rudd were among those interviewed who raised questions about medical evidence and police techniques.

Calusinski was 25 when she was convicted in 2011. She had no criminal background and showed a low IQ, according to court records. A state appeals court declined to reverse her conviction last year, finding nothing wrong in the investigation.

Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim, also interviewed for the show, said he reviewed the case shortly after taking office at the request of Calusinski's defense lawyer.

He declined to ask an internal panel to investigate the case for possible retrial, saying he sees no new evidence to present to a jury.

"Last night's show essentially was a rehashing of the defense theory at trial in an hourlong TV show," Nerheim said in a phone interview. "The jury heard all of this … and convicted her."

He added: "Not only is there a confession … but that confession is supported by evidence."

The child's parents, Amy and Andy Kingan, declined to be interviewed by "48 Hours," Nerheim said.

One argument presented by defense attorneys is that an expert witness in the case revised his conclusion after Benjamin's autopsy.

Lake County's coroner, Rudd, who at the time was newly elected to office, reviewed microscopic evidence and determined there was a prior injury. As a result, the expert witness, forensic pathologist Eupil Choi, agreed that he made a mistake and signed an affidavit, admitting that he overlooked another injury prior to the day Benjamin died.

"I just couldn't believe what I was seeing," Rudd told the television show. "I was shocked, stunned."

But Choi said the new evidence would not change his conclusion that Benjamin died from a "catastrophic" head injury the day of his death, Nerheim said.

"Dr. Choi did not change his opinion at all," he said. Benjamin would have had to suffer a significant new injury to cause the amount of bleeding in his brain that caused his death, he said.

Questions also were raised about the interrogation techniques used by investigators with the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force. Calusinski, interviewed off and on over a 10-hour period, changed her story several times under questioning by police.

"That is not a confession. That's a bunch of lies." Calusinski said on the television show, while reviewing videotapes of her confession.

"It was like mentally exhausting for me. A child just died. It takes time to heal."

Task force commander George Filenko was one of the investigators who questioned Calusinski throughout the day.

On Saturday, he said he did not plan to watch the show because he believed it would be biased toward Calusinski's defense.

"They never attempted to interview any of the police officers" involved in the case, he said.

A "48 Hours" producer called him once several months ago, and asked him if he was comfortable with the interview he conducted with Calusinski. He said he responded yes, but added that there were no follow-up questions.

Filenko said during the 10-hour period when Calusinski was being held, investigators spent much of that time checking with forensic scientists on whether any of the various scenarios she presented were plausible.

At one point, they brought in a toddler-size chair from Minee Subee and asked Calusinski to use a teddy bear to demonstrate what happened to Benjamin, he said.

"We followed the letter of the law," Filenko said Saturday. "I value what I do. I swore an oath. I don't take shortcuts."

After his election in 2012, Nerheim pledged more transparency and formed an independent review panel on the heels of several wrongful conviction cases in Lake County. He said he would revisit the Calusinski case if new evidence surfaced.

"Believe me, if there is new evidence, I'll review it," he said. "I respect the jury's decision, and I am not going to second guess the jury's decision."

lblack@tribpub.com

Twitter @LisaBChiTrib

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