Eli Hart killing: Mom again turns down plea deal offer; jury selection begins

Julissa Thaler, the mother accused of killing her son, Eli Hart, has again turned down an offer to plead guilty to second-degree murder and will instead go to trial for first-degree murder.

Thaler, 28, of Spring Park, is accused of shooting Eli up to nine times with a shotgun in her vehicle and then hiding his body in the trunk. Orono Police pulled Thaler over on May 20, 2022, after she was spotted driving on the rim of her car and with a window smashed out. Officers drove Thaler home, and then discovered Eli's body in the trunk. She was then arrested.

Bryan Leary, Thaler's attorney, in court on Monday said there would be a "release date" if she took the state's offer (second-degree murder has a sentence of 40 years in prison, while a first-degree murder conviction carries a mandatory life sentence), adding: "We have discussed this ... our recommendation is you take advantage of the offer."

"I would never do that to my son … I want to go to trial," Thaler responded in court on Monday. 

The offer was among a few motions the court discussed on the first day of her trial. The other was Thaler's attorney asking she be allowed to leave the courtroom when graphic or emotional material was presented, but the state objected. The judge ended up ruling she remains in the courtroom throughout her trial. 

Prosecutor Dan Allard said Monday the state will be limiting graphic evidence, including autopsy photos. 

"They are horrible … as bad as I have ever seen in any case. I don't want to see them again. The family doesn't want to see them again," Allard said. 

Thaler's case now moves onto jury selection for her first-degree murder trial. 

Meanwhile, several members of Eli Hart's father Tory Hart's family were in court for Monday's hearing.

Tory Hart last year filed a wrongful death lawsuit related to his son's killing, seeking more than $75,000 in damages. The lawsuit says Dakota County Social Services provided services to Eli, with Tory Hart claiming the county and its employees were negligent. Dakota County and two Dakota County employees, Sherri Larson and Beth Dehner, were named in the lawsuit. 

Tory Hart had been fighting for custody of his son prior to his death. Tory Hart's fianceé, Josie Josephson, told FOX 9 the boy's mother struggled with drug addiction and mental health issues, and despite their repeated calls for help, his biological mom was awarded full custody of Eli before his death.