A man convicted in September of reckless homicide for killing his girlfriend’s 5-year-old son, a man the boy had come to regard as his father, was sentenced Friday to 30 years in prison.
But despite a jury verdict that found him guilty of first-degree reckless homicide for the October 2013 death of Brayden Turnbill, Dakota Black continued Friday to profess his innocence.
“I’m sorry for the gross miscarriage of justice,” Black, 26, told Dane County Circuit Judge Stephen Ehlke before he was sentenced. “I did not kill Brayden, and he would not want ‘Daddy’ to be standing here today.”
But Ehlke said he had no doubt based on the evidence presented at Black’s trial that the jury got it right.
“In this case, the evidence was overwhelming in my view,” said Ehlke. “Little boys and girls don’t damage easily. In this case, the damage to Brayden was massive.”
Brayden died from a traumatic brain injury caused by blunt force trauma, prosecution experts said at Black’s trial, causing massive bleeding on his brain that even immediate medical help, including emergency brain surgery, could not stop.
Black and Brayden’s mother, Shannon Turnbill, were living at the Sun Prairie home of Turnbill’s cousin in Sun Prairie on Oct. 22, 2013, when Brayden was found unconscious on a bed in the basement of the home, where the family was staying.
He was taken off life support two days later.
No witnesses at the trial said they saw Black hurt Brayden, but Black was alone at home with Brayden and an infant at the time the boy was injured.
Defense experts asserted that Brayden’s injuries could have happened from a fall down the basement stairs, or from other causes, but Ehlke said he wasn’t convinced that the cause of his injuries was anything but Black’s actions.
“In my view the jury returned the right verdict,” Ehlke said, who also said that Black has shown no remorse. “There is no doubt that something terrible happened to Brayden.”
The prison sentence, to be followed by 20 years of extended supervision, was close to what Deputy District Attorney Thomas Fallon had requested. A state Department of Corrections pre-sentence report recommended 40 years in prison, followed by 23 years of extended supervision.
Black’s lawyer, John Smerlinski, asked for a sentence of 15 years in prison and 15 years of extended supervision, accepting the reality of the jury’s verdict while strongly disagreeing with it.
“They haven’t proven it,” Smerlinski said. “The fact is we don’t know the how, the when, the where, or what happened. We don’t have that.”
Black put it more bluntly.
“I’m not a violent person,” he said. “I’m not a murderer. I’m not a child abuser. I did not kill Brayden.”
Black has already filed a notice that he intends to appeal his conviction.
Fallon said that along with the jury verdict, there were prior reports to Dane County Human Services that Black had abused Brayden, and though he admitted that none of the reports was substantiated, he said they were suspicious. And Fallon said that throughout his life Black had shown little interest in anything but himself, applying himself little at school, and working only sporadically.
“There is no other way to say this,” Fallon said, “but he has no character. There is no explanation for what happened here, or how or why it happened.”
Brayden’s death and Black’s trial caused some division in Brayden’s family. Shannon Turnbill, who was not in court Friday but sat with Black’s family during his trial, spoke to the author of the DOC pre-sentence report and offered support for Black.
In a letter to Ehlke, Turnbill’s half-sister, Megan Moore, asked that Black receive the maximum sentence possible, so that other children in the family who have been very much affected by Brayden’s death learn that “we will not stand for this.”
“Dakota will never hurt another child,” she wrote. “Dakota will not be able to experience the everyday privileges of life. He lost the right to do that the minute he took the life of a small, innocent boy.”