When 5-year-old Brayden Turnbill died nearly two years ago from a brain injury, was it caused by an accident or was the trauma inflicted upon him by his mother’s boyfriend?
That’s the question a jury will consider over the next two weeks as it decides whether Dakota R. Black, 25, of Oregon, committed first-degree reckless homicide in Brayden’s death, which happened on Oct. 24, 2013, two days after he was found unresponsive at home in Sun Prairie.
Prosecutors told the jury during an opening statement Tuesday that the answer is simple.
“We intend to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Dakota R. Black recklessly caused the death of Brayden Turnbill,” said Deputy District Attorney Thomas Fallon. He called Brayden a “silent witness,” who will answer for the jury the question that Black asked a police officer: “Do you think I did something to the kid?”
Fallon told jurors that Brayden was healthy the day he was found unresponsive. He came home from school and was with no other adults but Black until Brayden’s mother, Shannon Turnbill, arrived home from work about an hour later.
At the time, the family was staying in the basement of the Sun Prairie home of Turnbill’s cousin until Turnbill and Black got back on their feet. When Turnbill went into the basement, she found Brayden unresponsive on a bed, breathing abnormally. Calls were made to 911, and when police and paramedics arrived, the struggle to save his life began.
Brayden first was taken to the St. Mary’s Hospital emergency room in Sun Prairie, where a medical scan found a severe head injury. He was taken by helicopter to UW Children’s Hospital, where he underwent emergency brain surgery.
Although the surgery stopped the bleeding on his brain, very high pressure in his brain continued and was not survivable.
Brayden died two days later.
Fallon told jurors that experts will say the symptoms of Brayden’s injury would have manifested rapidly, so that the injury he suffered happened while he was home, not earlier.
Black’s lawyer, John Smerlinski, did not make an opening statement on Tuesday, but instead will speak to the jury before he begins calling witnesses, probably next week. During pre-trial motion hearings over the summer, he sought to present alternative theories for Brayden’s injuries.
One theory, that another 5-year-old said she saw Brayden fall from playground equipment at school, wasn’t allowed by Circuit Judge Stephen Ehlke because the child never mentioned seeing Brayden strike his head or said how far he fell.
“The defense is not entitled to throw out ideas about what happened without a tether to reality,” Ehlke said at the time.
Smerlinski has also pointed out that prosecutors have no evidence that directly ties Black to the injuries found on Brayden’s body.
Black headed to trial after turning down a prosecution offer that would have had him pleading guilty to the homicide charge and prosecutors recommending 15 years behind bars.
In an Oct. 22, 2013 interview, recorded with Sun Prairie police Det. James Smith, shown to jurors late on Tuesday, Black insisted, against Smith’s accusations, that he didn’t know how Brayden had gotten hurt. He said Brayden seemed as though he had been crying when he came home from school that day but said nothing was wrong.
Black said Brayden played with his 1-year-old half-brother before saying he was tired, then went to lie down on the bed in the basement.
Confronted by Smith with the extent of Brayden’s injuries and the possibility that he would die, and pressed by Smith to tell him “man to man” what happened, Black said he couldn’t say.
“You think about it, okay?” Smith said, ending the interview.