Editorial: Case with ‘undetermined’ cause of death needs careful look

SHARE Editorial: Case with ‘undetermined’ cause of death needs careful look
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Melissa Calusinski, incarcerated in 2013 at Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Ill. |For the Sun-Times/Kristen Schmid

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A former day care worker is serving 31 years in prison for what the Lake County coroner now says might not even have been a crime. Authorities need to pull out all stops to get to the bottom of this case.

Melissa Calusinski, 28, was convicted in 2011 of killing a 16-month-old toddler by throwing him to the floor of a Lincolnshire day care center. She’s been behind bars for six years.

But now Coroner Thomas Rudd says X-rays unearthed last month showed no skull fractures. An independent forensic pathologist reviewing the new evidence concluded the toddler had cerebral swelling from earlier concussions. Rudd now says the cause of death is “undetermined,” not homicide, the original finding.

This is not the first case in which doubt has been raised over a conviction of a day care worker. When toddlers die, there’s a demand for someone to be convicted. Often, that’s the last person known to have been with the child. Often, there are no witnesses. Too often, the medical theory used to prove that person’s guilt is suspect.

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We can’t say that’s what happened here. But the original pathologist in this case already has admitted he missed the evidence of an earlier injury, although he isn’t revising his overall conclusion.

In the long history of wrongful convictions, authorities have with troubling frequency refused to look at new evidence or consider re-opening cases. So we commend Rudd for his willingness to reclassify the cause of death based on the new evidence.

We also commend Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Nerheim for the work he has done since taking office in 2012 to untangle a series of wrongful convictions in high-profile cases that he inherited from his controversial predecessor.

After taking office, Nerheim set up a volunteer wrongful-conviction panel to take an extra look at cases. Most recently, Jason Strong was cleared in May after 15 years in prison on a murder charge. He was freed partly on the basis of new medical evidence.

Like Calusinski, Strong had confessed. But a growing body of research has showed false confessions are more common than once thought. Calusinski’s videotaped confession came after six hours of interrogation.

Nerheim, who already reviewed the Calusinski case shortly after assuming office, says his office is reviewing the documents in the case again. We trust he will give the evidence a thorough and impartial look.

The case is scheduled to go before a judge on Sept 21. We hope by then — if not sooner — clearer answers will emerge.

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