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Gregory man accused of killing infant acquitted of all charges

Adam Bruns, left, his father, Ronald Bruns, center, and his attorney, Tim Rensch, right, walk out of the Gregory County Courthouse on Wednesday in Burke after Bruns was acquitted of the murder of his 3-month-old son, Levi. (Jake Shama/Republic)

BURKE—A Gregory County jury found a man accused of killing his infant not guilty on all charges Wednesday.

Adam Bruns, 24, of Gregory, was acquitted by a jury Wednesday afternoon after nearly seven hours of deliberation at the Gregory County Courthouse in Burke.

"He's very happy about this, and it's a long time coming," said Bruns' attorney, Tim Rensch. "He's a good young man, and he's looking forward to living the rest of his life."

The charges were filed against Bruns for the death of his 3-month-old son, Levi, more than two years ago. Bruns was accused of shaking Levi on Feb. 25, 2014, after he vomited while sitting in a swing in Bruns' home. The boy died five days later.

"And God bless Levi," Rensch said. Bruns declined to comment.

The jury found Bruns not guilty of second-degree murder, a Class B felony, which carries a mandatory life sentence in prison; first-degree manslaughter via aggravated assault or first-degree manslaughter via child abuse, which are Class C felonies punishable upon conviction by up to life in prison; or second-degree manslaughter via recklessness, a Class 4 felony punishable upon conviction by up to 10 years in prison.

He was also found not guilty of aggravated assault and child abuse, both Class 3 felonies which are punishable upon conviction by up to 15 years in prison.

The trial opened with jury selection on Oct. 24 and 25. Attorneys on both sides called in numerous witnesses to discuss medical issues—namely brain swelling, retinal hemorrhaging and subdural hematomas, among others—while also questioning the validity of statements made by Bruns in which he admitted to shaking the boy.

During the trial, Bruns said he thought Levi was choking, so he quickly picked him up and tipped him upside down to clear his airway. Five minutes later, according to Bruns, Levi turned pale, and his eyes rolled to the back of his head, leading Bruns to run him to a nearby hospital.

In a closing statement, Rensch told the jury the state failed to meet its burden to prove Bruns' guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, calling his client's presumption of innocence "a suit of armor."

Rensch recounted extensive testimony by medical experts called by both the state and the defense. Rensch told the jury Levi's medical issues could have started before he was born or when Levi fell from a couch a few weeks earlier, and recurrent brain bleeds could cause vomiting and other issues.

He also criticized the state's child-abuse experts, saying they immediately blame the child's last caretaker when they can't explain a child's condition.

"The child-abuse people say, 'No, that's consistent with abuse.' Therefore, they say it's got to be abuse," Rensch said. "The have to prove that it has to be. They can't just prove that it could be."

Rensch mentioned a number of other diagnoses purported by his witnesses, including a lack of oxygen and seizures.

Rensch also criticized the tactics of Special Agent Dave Stephan, of the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation, to whom Bruns said he shook Levi six to eight times. Stephan allegedly told Bruns incorrectly that the doctors said shaking was the only explanation for Levi's injuries, and Stephan also admitted to lying to Bruns to implant the idea in his head, according to Rensch.

"Why would it be appropriate for any law enforcement officer to try to implant something in a young man's mind who is in the middle of a stressful situation?" Rensch said. "Just because (Bruns) said what he said during this interrogation, indoctrination, whatever you want to call it, it doesn't mean he murdered his son."

Rensch didn't believe Bruns should be convicted of anything, but if the jury decided to convict, he asked it to consider the second-degree manslaughter charge. Still, Rensch said Bruns was only trying to help his son, so he shouldn't be found guilty.

"If that is true, this would be the most unjust thing in the world to convict him. It's better that 10 guilty people go free rather than one innocent person be convicted," Rensch said.

Assistant South Dakota Attorney General Katie Mallery thanked the jury for dedicating 2 1/2 weeks of their lives to the trial, and she said it was for an important matter.

"I want to be here, and I want to see justice for Levi Bruns," Mallery said.

Mallery pointed toward Bruns' past statements, in which he made several apparent admissions to law enforcement, his girlfriend and his father, including "I hurt our son" and "I must have just lost it for a second and I shook him."

Bruns shook Levi out of frustration, Mallery said, because the boy had been spitting up his food for the past five days and doctors so far failed to provide any answers.

"We're really not trying to make you believe he didn't love Levi, that he wasn't a good father to Levi," Mallery said. "You can love your child and still do something to injure your child, even if you don't mean to."

Mallery then began talking about Levi's extensive cranial wounds, which she said matched those found in shaking victims.

"They are indicative of non-accidental trauma. And what kind of non-accidental trauma? Acceleration and deceleration forces consistent with shaking," Mallery said. "The state has given you what doctors would call a unifying diagnosis, a diagnosis that encompasses all the injuries we're seeing in Levi."

While Gregory doctors said Levi's condition was consistent with choking, as Bruns initially told them, Assistant South Dakota Attorney General Robert Mayer said they changed their minds after Levi failed to respond to treatment and believed the boy was suffering from a more serious issue.

Mayer criticized each of the defense's medical experts individually and said the defense used each of them to explain a small piece of Levi's medical condition. He emphasized the state's argument was the only one that explained all the boy's symptoms.

But Mayer also urged the jury to consider the case with an open mind, saying he was aware of opinions about the case in the surrounding community.

"We know there is some sentiment on the street about this case, and we know which way that sentiment lies, to be very honest with you," Mayer said. "Keep your eye on the ball, folks. We have proven our case beyond a reasonable doubt."

The defense and prosecution largely agreed on the injuries to Levi's brain, but Mallery pointed to nerve damage in Levi's neck, while Rensch said the only neck injury was a small hemorrhage that was not consistent with shaking.

Ultimately, the jury sided with the defense, and after a more than two-year ordeal, Bruns walked away from the courthouse with his father's arm wrapped around his shoulder.