On November 2, 1990, the body of 2-year-old Nathan Terens was found floating in the Manitowoc River in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.
Police focused on the boy’s parents, 27-year-old Daniel Terens and his wife, Christine. Christine told police that she was at a restaurant at the time of the incident and that she had been raped on her way home.
Terens, who had a prior conviction for domestic violence relating to an assault on Christine, was interrogated by Manitowoc police and ultimately, according to police, gave a written statement in which he said he pushed the child, causing him to fall and strike his head. Terens said the boy’s death was an accident and denied intentionally killing the boy. Police said Terens told them he was drunk and that when the boy appeared lifeless, he wrapped him in a blanket and took him down to the river. Portions of the interrogation also were tape recorded.
Terens was charged with first-degree reckless homicide and went on trial in Manitowoc County Circuit Court in 1991. The prosecution’s case relied almost entirely on Terens’ statements.
The tape recorded statement was played for the jury. A detective testified that Terens told him that Nathan was in bed and then got up and that Terens was upset because he thought Nathan would wake his older siblings.
The detective said that when Nathan got out of bed that was “the cream on top of the whole pudding, you know.” The detective said that the boy was “waking up the other kids and (making) it twice as bad, and I got pissed at him.” The detective quoted Terens as saying, “I told him, ‘you get to bed,’ and he wouldn’t get to bed.”
The detective testified, “He said that Nathan just kept screwing around and screwing around and screwing around, and then he stated it was with his toys and he ultimately said that Nathan was like coming towards him and he pushed Nathan. He said that is where Nathan hit his head.”
“Did the defendant intend to smother his child?” the detective said. “Probably not. He lost it. He was mad. He just grabbed his little head and said, ‘Be quiet. Keep quiet.’ Screwing around, screwing around and screwing around. But he held on too long and Nathan was unconscious and he thought Nathan was dead and he put Nathan into the water to make it look as if he had walked in.”
A pathologist testified that Nathan was still alive when he was put into the river and died of drowning.
Christine Terens testified that she was at a restaurant at the time of the incident and was raped on the way home.
The prosecution—both in opening statement and closing argument--emphasized Terens’ statements that the boy was “screwing around and screwing around and screwing around.” The prosecutor said that the most important evidence came from Terens’ own statements to the detective.
On March 22, 1991, the jury convicted Terens of first degree reckless homicide and he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
After the sentencing, a new attorney was appointed to handle the appeal and retained an expert in acoustic analysis who prepared enhanced versions of the tape. The expert found that the “screwing around” language was apparently said by the detective—not Terens. A motion for a new trial was filed and a hearing was held in April 1992.
The expert testified that the detective made the “screwing around” comment and also the comment about the “cream on top of the whole pudding.” The prosecution agreed that not only these statements, but other comments attributed to Terens were actually spoken by the detective. The detective took the witness stand and conceded that he made the statements.
Terens’ trial lawyer testified that he had examined transcripts of the interrogation and listened to the tapes, but thought that portions were difficult to understand. He said he discussed both the tapes and the transcripts with Terens, but never played the tapes for Terens so Terens could assess their accuracy.
The judge granted the motion for new trial, ruling that Terens’ trial lawyer had provided an inadequate legal defense. The prosecution appealed and in October 1992, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals upheld the order for a new trial.
Terens went on trial for a second time in May 1993. The detective, limited to what Terens actually said, testified that Terens told him he was drunk and didn’t intend to injure the child. The detective said Terens said he had been drinking heavily, had quarreled with his wife—who was having an affair—and pushed the boy “by accident.”
Nathan’s brother, Joshua, who was three years old at the time of the incident, testified that he saw Terens strike Nathan with a stick. But on cross-examination, Joshua said he had been told what to say.
Terens’ defense attorney contended that Terens’ wife, Christine, had abused Nathan and that she and her lover had tossed the boy into the river while Terens was passed out. Christine admitted that she had testified falsely during the first trial that on the night of the incident she had been raped by another man. She admitted that in fact she was having an affair with that man.
On May 8, 1993, the jury acquitted Terens and he was released.
Ten years later, in 2003, Terens was charged with sexually and physically assaulting Christine on the anniversary of Nathan’s birth. He was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
– Maurice Possley