A judge on Monday upheld the indictment against a Cloquet man accused of killing his pregnant girlfriend and her toddler son in March 2020.
Judge Jill Eichenwald also denied a defense motion to move Sheldon James Thompson's trial out of Carlton County, saying he failed to show that it would be impossible to convene an unbiased jury in the same county where he is accused of killing Jackie Ann Defoe and Kevin Lee Shabaiash Jr.
Thompson, 34, is charged with three counts of premeditated first-degree murder, two counts of first-degree murder while committing domestic abuse with a past pattern of domestic abuse and three counts of intentional second-degree murder. He faces mandatory life imprisonment without parole if convicted of the top offenses.
Authorities said the victims' bodies were discovered March 7, 2020, after a "concerned citizen" told police that Thompson made statements indicating he had killed Defoe, 27, and Kevin, 20 months old.
Officers found the victims' bodies in separate bedrooms at the residence, 1620 Locke Lane, Cloquet. They were concealed under blankets and clothing, and both doors had been screwed shut, according to court documents. Defoe, who was 13 weeks pregnant, had been stabbed several dozen times, while Kevin died from blunt-force injuries, an autopsy found.
Police said the investigation led to "a number of witnesses" who reported that Thompson had told them that he killed the mother and son. The killings are alleged to have occurred on or around March 5, 2020.
Grand jury process maintained 'fundamental integrity'
Defense attorney Steve Bergeson argued for the dismissal of the two domestic abuse murder charges, asking the judge to strike down the state statute as "unconstitutionally vague."
The counts require prosecutors to prove that Thompson caused the victims' deaths while committing a pattern of domestic abuse under "circumstances manifesting an extreme indifference to human life."
Bergeson also alleged that there were improper instructions given to grand jurors before they levied the indictment last October, and that there was a lack of probable cause to support the counts.
But Eichenwald said instructions provided to panelists were taken directly from the state's Jury Instruction Guides, adding that the language has previously been upheld by the Minnesota Supreme Court. And while the state does not have a legal definition for "extreme indifference," the judge said jurors could apply the "common, ordinary meaning."
The judge added that there was basis for grand jurors to conclude that Thompson had allegedly engaged in a pattern of domestic abuse. She noted that two women testified about past incidents, including the defendant's ex-wife, who reported four separate acts involving choking, punching, biting or kicking between October 2013 and December 2016.
"Defendant has not made a showing that the instructions given to the grand jury were egregiously misleading or deficient to compromise the fundamental integrity of the indictment process itself," Eichenwald wrote in the 16-page order.
Defense could renew change of venue motion
In ruling that the trial would remain in Carlton County for the time being, the judge left open the possibility that the defense could renew its change of venue motion once jury selection gets underway.
Bergeson claimed that news coverage, social media posts and various events hosted by the victims' family and supporters had created an environment in which potential jury members "have been repeatedly told that this is how it happened, these are the facts, and Mr. Thompson is not only guilty but has a violent past."
Bergeson apparently provided various clippings, broadcasts and social media posts to the prosecution, but he never actually filed the documentation with the court.
Eichenwald wrote that a "cursory search" of news coverage revealed a number of articles covering case developments, which she said "did not appear to express opinions about defendant's guilt or violent history."
"At this point, defendant has not provided any evidence in support of his contention that it will not be possible to select an impartial jury," the judge noted. "Carlton County is a largely rural county with multiple small communities that may have little or no connection to the Fond du Lac community where the incident occurred."
Thompson's statement still being considered
Eichenwald still must rule on another motion filed by the defense to suppress a statement allegedly made by Thompson upon his arrest in the woods off Mission Road, east of Cloquet.
Nils Hansen, a former Fond du Lac police officer, testified at a Sept. 1 hearing that the defendant told him, "I messed up. I'm going away for a long time." The comment reportedly came as Thompson was being treated in an ambulance before being taken to a police station.
Hansen told the court that he had cautioned Thompson to focus on his medical treatment and not engage in conversation at that time. But Bergeson is expected to argue that the statement was taken in violation of his client's Miranda rights.
Briefs are expected to be submitted by the defense and prosecution over the next two weeks before Eichenwald issues a ruling.
Thompson is next scheduled to appear for a settlement conference at the Carlton County Courthouse on Oct. 27. A trial date has not been set.