Woman found guilty in murder of 6-year-old son

A Hennepin County jury on Wednesday convicted a Twin Cities woman of first-degree premeditated murder in the May 20 shooting death of her young son.

In his closing argument, prosecutor Dan Allard said Julissa Thaler, 29, of Spring Lake Park, planned to kill Eli Hart, 6, noting that she purchased a shotgun, practiced with it at a range, and took it with her on the night of the murder.

“This is as premeditated as it gets,” Allard said. “As horrible as it is to think that a mother could do this to her six-year-old son, she did.” 

Allard said Eli was a child who loved kittens and playing with cars with his father. On his final night, Eli went shopping with Thaler, ate pizza and watched movies, then got into an argument with her about going to bed. 

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Allard said Eli likely thought he was going on “a late-night adventure with mom” when she put him in his car seat and drove around the western suburbs of Minneapolis. 

After finding a secluded spot, Thaler shot her son nine times at close range as he sat in the back seat. Allard noted that Thaler fired the final three shots after reloading the weapon.

Mound police found Eli’s remains in Thaler's trunk after stopping her for driving on a wheel rim without a front tire. Investigators said Thaler damaged her vehicle when she drove onto a bicycle path at Minnetonka Regional Park on the night of the killing.

Allard reminded jurors that the state is not required to prove a motive for the killing, but said Eli was the subject of a custody dispute between his parents, and that digital forensic analysts who examined Thaler’s computer found that she searched for information on “excessive amounts” of life insurance for a child.

Eli had spent more than a year in foster care before moving in with his mother. In a federal lawsuit, Eli's father Tory Hart alleges that Dakota County social workers endorsed giving Thaler sole custody despite documented concerns about her substance abuse and mental health.

After killing Eli, Allard said Thaler drove around and disposed of evidence, including Eli’s backpack and car seat.

In his closing argument, defense attorney Bryan Leary urged jurors to be open to the possibility that another person killed Eli. 

Leary conceded that prosecutors presented a “truckload of evidence” that proved Thaler is “guilty of participating in a homicide,” but noted that the government never charged her with aiding and abetting murder. Leary said the state never “proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the gun was in her hands” when it was fired. 

Under Minnesota law, Thaler faces an automatic sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Judge Jay Quam set Thaler’s sentencing hearing for February 16. He said the court will provide counseling for jurors who request it.