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Wife pitted against her husband as SD child death trial opens

PARKER -- Four-month-old Jacob Miller died an "untimely death at the hands of his father," a prosecutor said Tuesday during opening statements in the trial of a Scotland, S.D., man accused of killing his infant son.

The defense claims the infant boy was inadvertently suffocated by his mother.

Chris Miller, 39, is charged with killing his son Jacob by shaking and beating him in March 2011. Miller faces charges of second-degree murder, first-degree manslaughter and aggravated assault, and could be sentenced to life in prison if he is found guilty.

Miller's trial, which began with jury selection last week, is being held at the Turner County Courthouse in Parker, since it was moved out of Bon Homme County by a judge last October.

Deputy Attorney General Bob Mayer and Bon Homme County State's Attorney Lisa Rothschadl are prosecuting the case.

The jury was sworn in shortly after 9 a.m. Tuesday and was given preliminary instructions by First Circuit Judge Glen Eng. Shortly after 9:30 a.m., Rothschadl began the prosecution's opening statement.

"We are all here for the next several days for one reason: Jacob Allen Miller," she said.

Rothschadl recounted the series of events that allegedly led to Jacob's death and Miller's arrest, which court documents say began shortly after midnight on March 4, 2011, when Jacob was taken to the hospital in Scotland. Miller had called 911 less than 20 minutes before and reported he had found his wife, Stacy Miller, passed out from drinking and lying on top of Jacob, and that Jacob was not breathing.

Jacob was later transported to Avera McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls, where he was diagnosed with broken ribs, severe skull fractures and bleeding in the brain, court documents say.

"Doctor after doctor will testify that these injuries were not accidental," Rothschadl said.

Stacy Miller will testify about a past incident when Miller abused Jacob, and paramedics, police officers and doctors will all testify that the cause of Jacob's death was abuse, Rothschadl said.

"The evidence and testimony you are about to hear and see will establish that Jacob Miller did not die from an accident," she said. "It was abusive head trauma."

Miller is being defended by attorneys Tim Whalen, of Lake Andes, Scott Podhradsky , of Wagner, and Ken Cotton, of Wagner. Whalen gave the defense's opening statement.

The prosecution's case is based on nothing more than "speculation, guesswork, innuendo and suggestion," Whalen told jurors.

"The state's evidence will not provide a smoking gun," he said. "They can't prove that Chris Miller did anything to harm Jacob Miller."

Whalen said an expert witness will testify the cause of death for Jacob was suffocation from "Stacy rolling over on Jacob when she was in a drunken stupor," not abusive head trauma as alleged by the prosecution.

Stacy Miller will testify that the last thing she remembers from the night of the incident is holding Jacob in the bedroom, Whalen said.

"The evidence will show the last person to see Jacob alive was Stacy Miller, not Chris Miller," he said.

The prosecution will fail to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, Whalen said.

"The facts will be such that at the end of that state's case they will have the same thing they started with: nothing," he said.

Opening statements concluded shortly after 10:30 a.m., and after a short recess the prosecution began calling its first witnesses.

Karen Evenson, the dispatcher at the Bon Homme County Sheriff's Office who answered the 911 call when Miller reported Jacob wasn't breathing, was the first witness called to testify.

Before Evenson gave any significant testimony, a recording of the 911 call was played in the courtroom.

"My wife was lying on my son," Miller says in the recording to Evenson after she answers the call. "He's not breathing."

Miller speaks fast, seemingly in a state of panic, as he tells Evenson his name and address while she dispatches an ambulance.

"She was sleeping on him," Miller repeats. "My wife was sleeping on him."

After little more than a minute, Miller apparently steps away from the phone, but leaves the line open, and attends to his child and wife.

"Jacob breathe, please breathe," he can be heard saying in the background.

A woman, presumably Stacy Miller, can also be heard yelling in the background of the call.

While still on the line with Miller, Evenson contacts Bon Homme County Sheriff Jason Bechtold and notifies him of the incident.

"It sounds suspicious," Evenson tells Bechtold. "I don't know what's going on."

Eventually, Miller returns to the phone, and shortly afterward a police officer on the scene tells Evenson that Jacob has been taken to the hospital, and the call ends.

"Since I couldn't get Chris to answer, and I heard a female screaming in the background, I just knew something was up," Evenson said in her testimony, referring to her use of the word "suspicious" during the 911 call.

The jury will continue to hear testimony from witnesses for both the prosecution and defense, as the trial is scheduled to go on until Feb. 1.