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State v. Asfeld

June 12, 2003

STATE OF MINNESOTA, RESPONDENT,
v.
MICHAEL PATRICK ASFELD, APPELLANT.



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

The domestic abuse murder statute, Minn. Stat. § 609.185(6) (2002), permits the admission of evidence of the defendant's prior abuse of other members of the defendant's "family or household" to prove the element of a past pattern of domestic abuse.

Evidence of defendant's prior assaults of a 13-year-old boy and a woman in her mid-forties who were not members of the defendant's "family or household," which was submitted as Spreigl evidence tending to prove the defendant's identity as someone with a callous attitude toward vulnerable people, was improperly admitted in defendant's trial for the murder of his infant son; but the admission of said evidence was harmless error.

Defendant was not denied effective assistance of counsel when his attorney failed to object to the admission of evidence of his prior acts of domestic abuse.

Affirmed.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Anderson, Paul H., Justice.

Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc.

OPINION

Appellant Michael Patrick Asfeld was indicted for four counts of murder in connection with the death of his infant son Dominick. The four murder counts were murder in the first degree (premeditation), murder in the first degree (child abuse), murder in the first degree (domestic abuse), and murder in the second degree. Asfeld was also indicted for violating the terms of an order for protection that had been issued after he admitted shaking Dominick. A jury found Asfeld guilty of all four murder counts, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment for first-degree child abuse murder. Asfeld appeals the conviction on the following grounds: the district court improperly applied the domestic abuse murder statute; the court erred in admitting Spreigl evidence of his prior incidents of violence; there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction; and he received ineffective assistance of counsel. We affirm the conviction.

Michael Patrick Asfeld began dating Wendy Ruprecht in 1995, when he was nineteen and she was sixteen. A year later, they moved into Ruprecht's parents' home, and then into a home of their own. After a tumultuous period during which the couple broke up and reunited, Ruprecht became pregnant, and on August 9, 1999, they had a son, Dominick. At this time, they were living together in Cold Spring, Minnesota.

On December 15, 1999, Ruprecht went to work leaving Asfeld at home with Dominick who had been kept out of daycare because he had a cold. Ruprecht called home at noon to say she was sick and coming home. At that time, Asfeld told her that Dominick seemed sick, had eaten very little, and had thrown up. When Ruprecht got home, she called Dominick's doctor, Dr. Timothy Ebel, and then she and Asfeld took Dominick to see Ebel. Ebel testified that he saw Dominick at around 5:00 p.m. that same day and did a physical exam, which included drawing blood and taking a chest x-ray. Ebel's notes from that exam described Dominick as "alert," "nontoxic," and "in no acute distress." Ebel diagnosed Dominick with fever, cough, and probable pneumonia and prescribed antibiotics and Tylenol. Ebel later testified that during the exam, Dominick seemed "a little off," his eyes did not appear to be tracking right, and he did not show any signs of discomfort or flinching when the shots were given.

Ruprecht testified that when they returned home, Dominick's behavior did not improve significantly. Between 7:00 and 8:00 p.m., Asfeld left the house and when he returned, Dominick continued to be in distress: he was whimpering and had little reaction to his bath. Around 10:00 p.m., Dominick started seizing. Asfeld and Ruprecht then took Dominick to the hospital emergency room. The emergency room doctors testified that Dominick exhibited classic signs of shaken baby syndrome, and a child abuse expert described these signs as seizures, a low sodium level, a subdural hematoma, retinal hemorrhage, and fractures. Dominick was admitted to the hospital and treated for his injuries until he was released into foster care on December 30, 1999. Dominick's case was reported to the Stearns County authorities.

After Dominick was released into foster care, investigators and social workers told Asfeld and Ruprecht that Dominick would not be released from foster care and their parental rights could be terminated if no one admitted to the alleged abuse. Asfeld and Ruprecht agreed that Asfeld would say that he had shaken Dominick so that Ruprecht would be able to regain custody. Ruprecht and Asfeld both told their families that his admission to the shaking was part of a plan to regain custody and on January 25, 2000, Asfeld told investigators that he had shaken Dominick. Asfeld was subsequently charged with first-degree assault and malicious punishment of a child and a Children In Need of Protective Services (CHIPS) case was filed. At the May CHIPS hearing, Asfeld recanted his confession. An Order For Protection (OFP) was issued nonetheless to keep Asfeld from having unsupervised contact with Dominick and Asfeld reluctantly moved into his parents' home.

Dominick was still severely injured when he was released from the hospital into foster care: he had a shunt in his head, blurred vision, need for therapy, and was required to attend almost daily medical appointments. Ruprecht attended nearly all of Dominick's appointments, and Asfeld participated in a few as well. While in foster care, Dominick received both physical and occupational therapy and his condition improved significantly. Asfeld had contact with Dominick during this healing period, and witnesses later described the interaction as being positive. In March 2000, Dominick returned to live with Ruprecht.

About six months later, on October 10, 2000, Asfeld spent the day combining. He finished working around 10:00 p.m. and drove to Ruprecht's house. He arrived at about 10:30, entered without knocking, read through his mail, and went to the living room. Ruprecht was asleep on the couch and when she woke up they spoke briefly. She then went to the bedroom where she went back to sleep. Asfeld testified that he watched television for a while and then left, without saying goodbye to Ruprecht or checking on Dominick, who was asleep in his crib in another room. Asfeld arrived at his parents' home between 11:00 and 11:30 p.m., and family members testified that Asfeld appeared normal and calm when he arrived home.

On the morning of October 11, Ruprecht woke with her alarm and went to check on Dominick. He was not breathing and was cold to the touch. She called 911 and the Stearns County Sheriff sergeant who responded to the call found Dominick lying on his back in his crib, clearly dead. There was a pattern of abrasion on Dominick's cheeks that the pathologist who performed the autopsy later declared were consistent with someone placing a hand or a blanket over the child's nose and mouth. Witnesses who had seen Dominick on October 10 testified that those abrasions had not been present when they had seen him. A Stearns County detective spoke with Ruprecht that morning and was told that Asfeld had come over the previous night at around 10:00 to pick up his mail, that he had not seen Dominick, who was asleep, and that Ruprecht had checked on Dominick at 11:00 and he was asleep on his stomach. The detective took the mattress, sheets, bumper pad, and blanket from Dominick's crib and she observed no traces of dirt or foreign objects.

Asfeld moved back in with Ruprecht shortly after Dominick's death. Their relationship soon deteriorated and Ruprecht eventually moved out of the house about two months after Dominick's death.

Nearly five months after Dominick's death, on March 5, 2001, the Stearns County Sheriff's Department received the final autopsy report from the medical examiner's office. The examiner classified Dominick's death as a homicide. When Ruprecht learned that Dominick's death was being classified as a homicide, she told investigators that the night Dominick died Asfeld had woken her up when he arrived, she had spoken with him briefly, gone back to bed, fallen asleep, and then awoke again when she heard his car leave some time later. She explained her earlier contrary statements by stating that Asfeld had asked her to lie. She also told investigators that Asfeld had physically abused her during their relationship. In cooperation with the investigators, Ruprecht called Asfeld and allowed the conversation to be taped. She told Asfeld that Dominick's death had been ruled a homicide and said "it's your fault and you know it is," to which he ...


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