Image: Steven Nicholson
Andre J. Jackson  /  AP
Steven Nicholson, accused of killing his two children, Ella Stafford and Jonathon Sanderlin, looks on during his arraignment at 24th District Court in Allen Park, Mich., on Oct. 22, 2010. A medical examiner says the two toddlers probably drowned before their bodies were scalded with hot water.
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updated 11/15/2010 3:38:17 PM ET 2010-11-15T20:38:17

A judge on Monday ordered a Detroit-area man to stand trial on first-degree murder charges in the drowning of his two toddlers after a medical examiner said the deaths were not an accident.

Allen Park District Judge Richard Page said the standard for ordering trial simply is probable cause, not the higher threshold of beyond a reasonable doubt.

The bodies of 15-month-old Ella Stafford and 13-month-old Johnathan Sanderlin were discovered in Steven Nicholson's apartment on Oct. 19 after he made a middle-of-the-night call to 911.

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Wayne County's chief medical examiner, Dr. Carl Schmidt, said it's possible the children could have turned on the water and entered the bathtub but unlikely.

"I don't think this was an accidental drowning," Schmidt testified, referring to Johnathan's death.

He had the same opinion in the death of Ella. Only an "extraordinary explanation" would change his mind, Schmidt said.

Johnathan had burns on 80 percent of his body, while Ella had burns on 25 percent, said Schmidt, who believes the scalding occurred after the drowning.

"The torture that these children underwent," assistant prosecutor Carin Goldfarb told the judge.

Defense attorney William Winters III claims it was an accident caused by the kids climbing into the tub while Nicholson slept. He said there may have been a crime but not first-degree, premeditated murder.

"This theory they've got is fantasy," Winters said in his closing argument.

Johnathan and Ella had different mothers who did not live with Nicholson, although Tayler Stafford said she saw her daughter almost every day.

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Stafford, 19, testified that Nicholson loved Ella but he called Johnathan "lazy" and a "fat heifer" and would hit him. She said the toddlers were capable of climbing into the tub.

Allen Park police Detective Jeff Miller said Nicholson told a 911 dispatcher the kids had drowned — "they're gone." During interviews with investigators, the father said he woke up at 2 a.m. and found Johnathan floating in the tub and Ella on the bathroom floor.

Police found the apartment bathroom in disarray with wet rolls of toilet paper all around and a towel bar in the tub, Miller said.

Under cross-examination, the detective said it could have been the result of kids playing, but it "could be consistent with someone trying to cover something up."

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