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17 heck for web, wed. paper mk/

Sug Hed: Abuse case ordered back to trial

By Janice Gregorson

gregor@postbulletin.com

A Mankato man accused of assaulting his infant son in the weeks after he was separated from his conjoined twin will stand trial on the first-degree assault charge, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled today.

The appeals court reversed an Olmsted District Court decision dismissing the charge against Robert Lee Heck III, 27, and remanded the case back to Olmsted County.

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"The decision today is just tremendous,’’ said Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem. "We are very excited."

Ostrem’s office appealed the ruling by Judge Joseph Wieners made in March, dismissing the assault charge. It was identical to a ruling made earlier in the case of Valerie James, 21, the Mankato mother of the twins who also had been charged.

Ostrem did not appeal the ruling on James. He said today that he is now considering whether to dismiss the present complaint against James and re-file the original charges in light of today’s ruling. She currently is scheduled to go on trial in December on a felony charge of aiding an offender/accomplice after the fact.

The two were each charged with one count of first-degree assault and one count of aiding an offender/obstructing the investigation or prosecution. The charges stemmed from injuries to one of the couple’s twin sons, Jordan. The twins, Jacob and Jordan, were born conjoined Nov. 9, 2006, in Rochester. They underwent immediate separation surgery. Jordan was released Jan. 3, 2007 and stayed with his parents at the Ronald McDonald House. Jacob was still in the hospital. On Jan. 11, 2007, the couple brought Jordan to the emergency room at Saint Marys Hospital with swelling and bruising in his legs. Doctors found he had 24 leg and rib fractures.

During pre-trial hearings in Olmsted County, Ostrem’s office had moved to admit relationship evidence consisting of prior instances of Heck’s alleged threats, assaults and harassment against his grandparents, half-brother, former girlfriends and the children of a former girlfriend. The trial court denied the state’s motion to admit this evidence, but suggested the state pursue admission of these incidents in another hearing.

The appeals judges said exclusion of the relationship evidence critically impacted the probable-cause determination and the outcome of the prosecution. The prosecution sought to admit 12 prior incidents. Wieners concluded the evidence was not admissible as relationship evidence because none of the incidents involved Jordan or other members of the immediate household. The appeals court held that that ruling was contrary to the statute. The judges said the district court erred in not allowing the evidence, and also erred in finding that the incidents did not involve any similar conduct. They said much of the relationship evidence Ostrem wanted to introduce involved domestic abuse.

In its appeal, Ostrem’s staff argued that the district court failed to view the credibility of the evidence and every inference to be drawn from the evidence in the light most favorable to the state. The appeals court judges said that although Wieners had the proper standard, he failed to properly apply it. Instead, they said, he viewed much of the evidence in the light most favorable to Heck and weighed the evidence to conclude that the state lacked sufficient evidence.

"We conclude that the district court misapplied the probable cause standard and that, considering the record in the light most favorable to the state, the state established probable cause to charge Heck with first-degree assault."

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Between the time the trial court dismissed the assault charge against James and the time of the Heck ruling, another district court in Blue Earth County was hearing whether the couples’ parental rights of the twins and an older daughter should be terminated. That judge did terminate their parental rights. Testimony from that trial was introduced at the probable cause hearing for Heck.

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