A Coal Valley man sentenced to 60 years in prison for the murder of his infant son was released Tuesday from the Illinois Department of Corrections after his conviction and sentence were vacated at the request of Rock Island County State’s Attorney Dora Villarreal.
The prosecutor said that when contacted by attorneys with the Innocence Project at the University of Illinois-Springfield representing 33-year-old Nathaniel Onsrud, she found irregularities with the file that needed investigating and necessitated her move to vacate the conviction and sentence.
Authorities have emphasized that the charges against Onsrud have not been dropped and the baby's death will be reinvestigated.
Police said Onsrud beat his 4-month-old son to death, causing bleeding to the brain, in 2007. Onsrud pleaded guilty to a murder charge a year later.
On the day of his sentencing, Nov. 25, 2008, Onsrud made a motion to withdraw his plea of guilty. The motion was denied by now retired Rock Island County Circuit Judge Charles “Casey” Stengel.
The boy’s mother, Elizabeth Lancial, and her mother, Annette Lancial, told Stengel that Onsrud, who was not married to Lancial, became jealous after the baby was born and needed attention. No one could touch the boy until a week after he was born, they said.
“If Dax was crying that day I’m sure all he needed was love and attention, and Nathaniel was tired of him getting the attention,” Annette Lancial said, adding that he knew he could call anyone in the family for help.
When trying to have his guilty plea withdrawn, Onsrud argued that a psychotropic medication he was on for sleeping problems prevented him from understanding the coroner’s report that was shown him before entering the plea.
Stengel then sentenced Onsrud to 60 years in prison, telling Onsrud that, “This is an act you’re going to have to live with a long time. It’s something you’re going to think about every day while you’re in prison.”
Onsrud is now being represented by the Innocence Project at the University of Illinois Springfield.
“The Innocence Project contacted our office not very long ago to let us know they were representing Mr. Onsrud,” Villarreal said Tuesday. “They wanted to come down and review the case file.
“When we pulled it out of storage it didn’t seem very big for the murder of a baby,” she said.
Villarreal then began requesting the investigation records from the Coal Valley Police Department and the Rock Island County Sheriff’s Department.
Both agencies provided large amounts of information that included recordings on cassette tape and VHS tapes.
“Over the course of several days, we were able to assemble a more complete case file,” Villarreal said, adding that Assistant State’s Attorney’s Heidi Weller and Kathy Swett worked hard to assemble all the documents.
“It really appeared a lot of these documents had not been turned over to the defense and we became alarmed,” Villarreal said. “We felt we had an ethical obligation to notify the court and defense of our discovery.
“I immediately contacted Mr. Onsrud’s attorneys and informed them of this discovery and agreed to vacate the conviction and allow this case to be thoroughly investigated before any further action is taken,” she said.
Rock Island County Circuit Chief Judge Frank Fuhr order that the conviction and sentence be vacated, Villarreal said.
Onsrud was released Tuesday from the Menard Correctional Center.
Villarreal was quick to point out that the charges against Onsrud have not been dismissed and that the case is still active.
“We are just starting from scratch,” she said. “We now feel we have a complete file. The file will now have to be carefully reviewed by our office and by his defense team.”
Villarreal added that the cases once prosecuted by the lead prosecutor in Onsrud’s case, former Assistant State’s Attorney Margaret Osborn, will be audited. Osborn last worked in the Rock Island County State’s Attorney’s Office from 2006 through 2013.
In a news release issued Tuesday, Illinois Innocence Project Legal Director Lauren Kaeseberg said that, “For the past 13 year, Nathaniel has fought to clear his name and has been through the unimaginable ordeal of losing his baby and then being wrongfully convicted of murdering him.”
Kaeseberg said that Dax had been born 10 weeks premature and had significant medical complications and became unresponsive while in Onsrud’s care. Initial medical examinations did not reveal foul play, and the forensic pathologist brought in to consult on the case was reluctant to determine the death was a homicide.
Villarreal said Tuesday that there appeared to have been two autopsies on the child.
Kaeseberg said that Onsrud had been subjected to two interviews and after continual questioning made some ambiguous statements that the investigators determined to be a confession. Based in large part on that confession, Onsrud’s defense attorney at the time encouraged him to plead guilty.
A status hearing on the case is scheduled for Sept. 9 in Rock Island County Circuit Court.
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