Melissa Calusinski was convicted in 2011 of murdering toddler Ben Kingan in her classroom in an Illinois child care center, injuring him as seriously as though he were “dropped from the second floor of a building onto some concrete,” police said.
But in a new interview from behind bars, Calusinski, now 30, is adamant she is innocent — despite the confession she gave soon after the boy’s death. Her case has drawn high-profile supporters, including the same lawyer working to exonerate Making a Murderer‘s Steven Avery.
On Sep. 30, however, Calusinski’s request for a new trial after an evidentiary hearing was denied by Judge Daniel Shanes – who presided over her trial and sentence. Shanes cited a lack of new evidence and a lack of doubt about the verdict.
“What people just don’t understand is how it happened,” Calusinski tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday. “And I would say they probably never will because it hasn’t happened to them.
“They don’t know what I was put through in order for me to confess.”
Speaking to PEOPLE recently in the Lake County Adult Corrections Facility in Waukegan, Illinois, Calusinski retraced the events in 2009 that led to her imprisonment. (She is serving a 31-year prison sentence following her conviction on first-degree murder.)
“I’m an innocent person who has been accused of a crime that I did not commit,” she says.
Lake County State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim and Ben’s parents declined to comment. But prosecutors have dismissed Melissa’s claims and disputed how she has described the evidence in her case.
That Fateful Day
Calusinski says that in the moments before his death on Jan. 14, 2009, Ben began to fall asleep in his bouncy chair.
“He fell back to sleep and I said, ‘Ben, Ben, Ben’ and he wasn’t responsive,” she recalls of that day, when she was alone for about ten to 20 minutes in the classroom with Ben, his twin sister Emily and other toddlers at the center in Lincolnshire, Illinois.
“I touched his hand and it went limp,” Calusinski says. “[Ben’s] skin color totally changed from a regular skin tone to pale white ghost. I was freaking out in the classroom by myself.”
She remembers immediately running to the intercom and calling the front desk.
“I was like, ‘I need some help in here. Ben is not waking up,” she says. “The next thing I know, I turn my head back to him, and he had orange foam coming out of his nose and mouth. I screamed into the intercom.”
Her older sister, Crystal, who also worked at the center and helped her get the job, was at the front desk when Melissa called for help.
“I ran in there,” Crystal tells PEOPLE. “I pushed her out of the way, put Ben on the diaper changing table and started doing CPR immediately. It’s still very hard. I think about it all the time and in my dreams.”
Paramedics and police arrived minutes later and transported Ben to the hospital but it was too late.
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His mother, Amy, rushed to the hospital, notifying her husband, Andrew, on the way. Ben was pronounced dead at 4:50 p.m. — before they arrived.
According to court documents, Ben presented “in full arrest,” meaning there was no spontaneous respiration and no cardiac activity. His eyes were “fixed and dilated,” which usually indicates significant head injury.
The following day, forensic pathologist Dr. Eupil Choi performed Ben’s autopsy and determined that he had a skull fracture and died of “craniocerebral injuries due to blunt drama.”
According to Choi, his injuries were consistent with having been thrown to the floor by someone and were very recent, probably less then one day old.
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From 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. the next day, Melissa sat in a 6-by-12-foot interview room at the police department in Lake Zurich, Illinois, for questioning about what happened the day Ben died. Round Lake Police Chief George Filenko said authorities “were obligated” to read her her Miranda rights.
She signed that waiver at 9:43 a.m.
Throughout her nine-hour interrogation, detectives told Melissa that her story didn’t fit with the facts. According to court transcripts, Chief Filenko told Melissa that Ben’s injury was as serious as “being dropped from the second floor of a building onto some concrete.”
“This is out flat-out murder, okay,” he said, adding, “We’re gonna give you another opportunity to either be a good witness or a co-conspirator in a murder. That’s what it is coming down to.”
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Again Melissa told police, according to the transcripts, “I didn’t do anything. I am telling you guys the truth,” — and “it seems like I’m getting blamed.”
Filenko said that “all you need to do is tell us the truth and we’re done. And nobody thinks the less of you. You can tell us what you want us to tell your employer, you can tell us. We’ll go there and tell them. We’ll call her up.”
Melissa eventually confessed to throwing Ben to the ground in a fit of anger. Prosecutors say that she knew she could ask for a lawyer and that hers was a true confession.
“He had so much life ahead of him, and she took it away from him and us. He will never experience his first day of school, learn to ride a bike, play sports, graduate high school, fall in love, get married or give us grandchildren,” Amy, Ben’s mom, said at Melissa’s sentencing.
“We wish so badly we could hold him in our arms just one last time.”
‘I Was Terrified’
Melissa says she only confessed because she thought she could go home if she told them what they wanted to hear.
She adds: “When I finally figured it out, it was late at night and I tried telling them after I confessed. I was terrified.”
“The reason that case was overturned is because he was promised and believed that he was going to go home if he just went along with the story that police were giving,” she tells PEOPLE.
“Melissa was led to believe the same thing,” Zellner says. “She had no idea that what she was telling them would be a murder because of the stuff that they were telling her.”
Along with the confession, which Zellner argues was coerced, Melissa’s father, Paul Calusinski, received an anonymous phone call on June 20, 2010, saying there was a “second set” of X-rays that he needed to find at the Lake County Coroner’s Office.
When Paul called Lake County Coroner Dr. Thomas Rudd and told him about the call, Rudd pulled up all the X-rays on Benjamin’s case and says he saw no skull fracture.
“The child was known as a head-banger, so he kept on hitting his head,” Rudd tells PEOPLE. “He most likely kept on re-bleeding.”
The findings led to him to change Ben’s manner of death from homicide to “could not be determined.”
Prosecutors insist that the X-rays are not new, just a digitally lightened version of the X-rays provided before the trial. They also contend that if Ben did have a previous injury, it doesn’t mean that Melissa didn’t cause his death with a new injury.
But Zellner is hopeful that the Illinois Appellate Court will give her a new trial.
“There is no proof,” she says, “that this was murder.”