A jury convicted Joseph Nielsen, 22, of first-degree murder and child abuse Thursday for causing the injuries that killed his girlfriend’s 3-year-old son, Caiden Fedora, on Aug. 6, 2016.
The jury of eight women and four men deliberated for more than five hours before reaching the guilty verdict, which capped a nine-day trial in Campbell County District Court.
As the verdict was read, it was met with silence from the gallery of about 30 people, as well as from Nielsen and his defense council. Some audience members wept silently following District Judge Michael N. “Nick” Deegan’s request that there be “no extraordinary displays of emotion.”
After the verdict was announced, defense attorney Nick Carter asked that the jury be polled. Deegan asked the jurors if the verdict they reached as individuals matched up with the verdict that was just read in court. One by one, each of the 12 jurors stood up and answered, “Yes, your honor.”
A sentencing date for Nielsen has not yet been scheduled. Because the prosecutor didn’t seek the death penalty, Nielsen is facing a sentence of life in prison without parole.
Before the jury deliberated, both sides in the case made their closing arguments Thursday morning. Campbell County Attorney Ron Wirthwein said Nielsen’s explanation of Caiden’s injuries is “nonsense,” and Carter offered that law enforcement was biased against Nielsen “right from the start” of the investigation.
Nielsen has maintained the boy was injured when he jumped from a coffee table and landed on a plastic dollhouse.
Wirthwein pointed out that after Caiden allegedly jumped from the coffee table, Nielsen waited five minutes before calling 911. He said Nielsen’s story evolved as he learned more information about Caiden’s condition.
He said Nielsen described Caiden as “rambunctious,” while everyone else who testified about the boy said he was a cautious kid.
Another thing that didn’t make sense about Nielsen’s story was that the dollhouse didn’t fall when Caiden hit it, but after he landed on the floor, Wirthwein said. And during the alleged jump, Caiden didn’t knock over any of the “precariously stacked” boxes surrounding the dollhouse.
“Is it a reasonable explanation? Medically, it’s not. Physically, it’s not. It’s nonsense,” he said.
Doctors, nurses, EMTs and police officers who saw Caiden from Aug. 6-10, 2016, said that the boy’s injuries were not consistent with Nielsen’s story.
The first witness to say the injuries matched up with Nielsen’s account was the defense’s expert witness, Dr. Thomas Young, who found abnormal lab results that led him to believe the boy’s bruises could have been caused by minor handling because he had prothrombin time (PT), which causes a person to bruise easily.
“He’s a professional witness, that’s what he does,” Wirthwein said. “The doctors getting the results in real time did not think the PT was a big deal.”
Wirthwein said although Nielsen might not have intended to kill Caiden, “he certainly intended to hurt him. He knew what he was doing.”
Carter said Nielsen’s story hasn’t changed. What he told EMTs on the day the injuries happened was the same thing he told the jury Wednesday morning.
“He doesn’t exaggerate a thing. He just says what he saw,” Carter said.
Carter criticized the work of detectives during the investigation, saying they were biased against Nielsen “right from the start,” arresting him less than five days after the incident and four months before the autopsy report was completed.
“They didn’t want an investigation that would acquit Joseph Nielsen,” he said. “They cherry-picked information that was bad for Joe.”
Carter said investigators should have looked at the carpet in the home, which Caiden was supposed to have landed on after his jump from the coffee table.
“That might be valuable information,” he said.
He also noted that when an investigator from the Adams County Coroner’s Office in Colorado asked to speak with Nielsen, the Gillette detectives wouldn’t allow it.
The doctors at Children’s Hospital Colorado were concerned that Caiden’s injuries — including a subdural hematoma, retinal bleeding and fractures in his skull and ribs — were from child abuse. The autopsy report didn’t find any retinal bleeding, skull fractures or rib fractures, but the investigators did not go back to the doctors to present the findings.
Carter also addressed Nielsen’s past history with Caiden and his 1-year-old sister, Skylee.
“Not one witness said Joe even so much as raised his voice to these kids,” Carter said. “Where is that testimony? Someone who allegedly killed a child never raised his voice at the child?”
In his opening statement at the start of the trial, Carter said that he would present a fact in his closing statement that would make it obvious that there was no abuse and showed body cam footage from Gillette Police Officer Jeremy Traverse.
While Traverse was holding Caiden’s head still, his body cam was pointed at the boy’s face and there were no signs that he had been crying — no red eyes, no runny nose, Carter said.
“This is the most direct evidence, and it was right in front of us the entire time,” he said.
If Nielsen had just abused Caiden, the boy would have been crying, he said.
Carter also pointed out that Skylee, Caiden’s 1-year-old sister, wasn’t upset and even let Nielsen hold her for a few minutes while he talked with EMTs. If Nielsen had done something violent to Caiden just 15 minutes before, Skylee would not have acted like this, Carter said.
In his rebuttal argument, Wirthwein said that Nielsen waited five minutes before calling 911, and it took about another five minutes for Traverse to arrive. This was more than enough time for the signs of crying to disappear, he said.
As for the fact that Nielsen did not have a history of child abuse, it doesn’t matter in this case, Wirthwein said.
“It only has to happen once,” he said.