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Update: Nelson avoids jail time after emotional sentencing hearing

Judge rejects recommended jail sentence, says all had some fault in downtown fight

MANKATO — It wasn't the scene most people experience when they're facing sentencing for a downtown bar fight that results in a plea to misdemeanor fifth-degree assault.

Philip Nelson's case is different. He's a once promising football star, a former Gopher quarterback who was supposed to spend at least 15 days in jail, according to the probation officer who reviewed his case. Instead, Nelson was sentenced to the two days he'd already served in jail, a small fine and 100 hours of community services.

His victim, 25-year-old Isaac Kolstad, also a football star at one time, spent six weeks in a hospital intensive care unit and three more months confined to a wheel chair after the May 11 assault. Kolstad will spend the rest of his life recovering from a severe brain injury that he originally had little chance of surviving.

If it weren't for the opinion of two doctors, one working for Nelson and the other for prosecutors, it is likely Nelson would have been convicted of a felony for kicking Kolstad in the head after he was knocked to the ground by another man's single blow. It's also likely Nelson would have been sent to prison after his sentencing hearing Monday.

Those doctors found it was the punch to the head, allegedly landed by 21-year-old Trevor Shelley of St. Peter, and Kolstad's head hitting the ground that contributed most to Kolstad's injuries. Those injuries also resulted in fluid entering Kolstad's lungs as he was lying unconscious on the ground, making his brain injury worse due to a lack of oxygen.

Kolstad, his wife, Molly, and his mother, Teresa, all provided emotional statements that described the struggle Isaac and his family have endured through his remarkable recovery. They asked District Court Judge Bradley Walker to send Nelson to jail for starting the fight after a night of drinking underage in at least two downtown Mankato bars. They questioned Nelson's remorse, accusing him of leaving Isaac Kolstad to "die in the street" after kicking him in the head.

Nelson's attorney, Jim Fleming, also called two witnesses — two men who said they've come to know a side of Nelson that hasn't been portrayed in the national media coverage of Nelson's case.

Intense interest

When someone is sentenced for a misdemeanor, the courtroom isn't usually filled with more than 70 people showing support for the man who was assaulted.

At least a few dozen of those people were wearing shirts with the #22Strong logo that many in the Mankato community have used to show support of Kolstad's recovery. All of the seats in the courtroom were full 15 minutes before the hearing started, resulting in bailiffs rolling in more chairs for the overflow crowd. 

Blue Earth County Attorney Pat McDermott told Walker he would follow the probation officer's recommendations of 15 days in jail. That was after he explained that it was his job to consider only the facts of the case and keep his emotions out of his decision. But he also acknowledged the obvious public interest in the case and the difficult challenge of finding a sentence that would make everyone happy.

"Your honor, look around the courtroom," McDermott said. "I don't think we've ever had one this packed before for something of this nature."

After all of the statements were heard, Walker said the same thing he's said at other sentencing hearings: He can't turn back the clock. What's happened is a tragedy, Walker said, but he had to stick with the facts of the case. Those facts included findings that Nelson was remorseful, had taken full responsibility for the damage he has caused to Kolstad and his family and is at a low risk to offend again.

Walker also made reference to the fact that Kolstad also threw a punch that night, knocking Nelson to the ground, before Shelley allegedly threw the damaging punch.

"No one involved can start a sentence with, 'I didn't do anything wrong,'" Walker said.

Then he sentenced Nelson to the two days he served in jail after he was arrested a few blocks away from the assault. Walker also ordered Nelson to pay a $300 fine and complete 100 hours of community work services.

At least 15 hours of that service has to be before youth groups "to provide insight on how lives can be changed in an instant," especially after bad choices are made.

Kolstad's family wasn't happy, making that clear after the hearing. Isaac's father, Blaine, confronted Blue Earth County Attorney Pat McDermott in the courtroom with a photograph. He claims it shows proof that Nelson's kick to the head contributed significantly to his son's injuries and asked McDermott why it wasn't provided as evidence.

The accusations were repeated by the Kolstads' attorney, Kenneth White, after the hearing. However, White said he did not have a doctor's opinion that said the marks shown in the photograph were caused by Nelson's actions or contributed to Kolstad's brain injuries.

Emotional statements

Molly Kolstad said it was after 2 a.m. on May 11 when she heard a soft knock on her bedroom door.

She thought it was her husband. Instead it was his good friend, Sam Thompson, standing at the door. He is one of two men who attempted to separate Nelson and Kolstad after their verbal argument started. Thompson simply told her Isaac was hurt and she needed to get to the hospital.

Once Molly arrived at the Emergency Room, she received mixed messages from doctors as she waited. Then she was taken to the intensive care unit where she expected to see bruises, cuts and other evidence of a fight. Doctors had to explain the damage that had been done, but couldn't be seen.

"My husband suffered irreversible and permanent brain damage," Molly Kolstad said during her victim impact statement. "A large portion of his brain was removed days after the the assault and the surgeon described it to me as 'brain matter oozing' from the space they created when they removed a piece of his skull.

"The physicians told me that in their numerous years of experience, they had not seen anyone survive the amount of brain damage Isaac sustained and if he did overcome the 3 percent chance of survival it was even more likely he would be severely mentally impaired for the rest of his life.

"I was 8 months pregnant and had just celebrated our one year wedding anniversary and now I was being asked if I knew what my husband's last wishes were."

She asked Walker to give Nelson "the opportunity to reflect on his wrong doings" by spending some time in jail. She also said Nelson should thank her family, instead of apologizing, because it was their hard work that kept Isaac alive so Nelson avoided a murder charge.

"Mr. Nelson kicked an unconscious, defenseless person in the head then turned around and left him there to die in the street," Molly Kolstad said. "I make the plea that you consider the entirety of Mr. Nelson's decisions that night and his decisions since that night to make justice in Isaac's life."

After his wife was done, Isaac Kolstad also explained how much his life has changed since the incident. He read from written statement, occasionally skipping over words as he spoke.

He said, until that night, he had always felt safe in Mankato. He never imagined "something so violent" could have happened to him in the town where he has chosen to raise his own children. The damage that has been done was once unimaginable, he said.

"I can't hold my own children without someone else watching me," he said. "My doctors are afraid I will have another seizure and drop them. I can't drive. I can't work. I can't cook my family dinner. I can't even take a shower without someone being in the house.

"Philip Nelson made decisions that night that left me with permanent brain damage, left my family emotionally and physically drained, and left my little girls without their father."

Teresa Kolstad described how her faith continues to get her through the challenges of assisting with her son's recovery. She also let Nelson know that she believes he has been more concerned about his future football career than the damage that has been done.

"Philip Nelson, 10 months ago you committed the inhumane, violent and disrespectful for human life act of kicking my son in the head, twice, as he lay unconscious and then you ran away, leaving him to die in the street," she said. "The mere thought of your cowardice act sickens me."

Fleming called two witnesses to speak on Nelson's behalf.

Anthony Allen, Nelson's teammate when both were playing football at Mankato West High School, talked about the support Nelson provided during Allen's troubled youth.

Barry Ries, a Minnesota State University associate vice president and dean, talked about a friendship that developed with Nelson after Ries' son, Michael, another West teammate, died unexpectedly in 2010 at the age of 15.

Fleming also asked Walker to simply consider the facts, not the emotions of Kolstad's family and friends, during sentencing. He said he wasn't aware of anyone else in a similar situation, considering the opinions of the doctors who found Nelson's actions hadn't caused the brain damage, who was sent to jail.

Then Nelson said a few words before Walker's sentence ended the long hearing.

"A lot of people have said terrible things about me that aren't true," Nelson said. "A day doesn't go by that I don't think about what I did. I truly am remorseful."

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Public safety, courts and general assignment reporter.

Jessica here, doing some coffee-fueled reporting for the Mankato Free Press. My beat? Education, colleges, LEARNING. Feel free to contact me with questions, comments and story ideas.