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Gehde sentencing

Joshua Gehde, right, with his lawyer, Vincent Rust, reacts as his 911 call is played in court during opening statements in his December trial in the 2016 death of a toddler he was caring for. Gehde, who maintained his innocence, was sentenced Thursday to 20 years in prison after being convicted of first-degree reckless homicide. 

A Madison man maintained his innocence Thursday before he was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Dane County judge for the 2016 death of a toddler he was caring for.

Joshua S. Gehde, 27, also was sentenced by Dane County Circuit Judge Stephen Ehlke to 15 years of extended supervision. He was convicted by a jury in December of first-degree reckless homicide for abusing his girlfriend’s 2-year-old daughter, Sophia Huff.

Deputy District Attorney Matthew Moeser asked for Ehlke to sentence Gehde to 40 years in prison, followed by 10 years of extended supervision.

“There’s nothing mitigating about what happened ... she was 2,” Moeser said. “She was in the one place she should have been most safe — her home.”

Gehde’s attorneys asked for a total sentence of between 18 and 27 years, with eight to 12 years to be served in prison. Gehde faced up to 60 years of combined prison and extended supervision.

Gehde will start the sentence after completing a four-year prison sentence imposed after his probation for an unrelated crime was revoked.

At Thursday’s emotional, two-hour sentencing hearing, members of the victim’s and Gehde’s family packed the courtroom. Gehde — wearing a blue Dane County Jail uniform and handcuffs — mostly stared ahead at the table at which he was seated. The sentence came just days after what would have been Sophia’s fourth birthday.

Ehlke said he hopes the sentence brings some closure to the child’s family.

He said that while it appears Gehde had at least attempted to get Sophia help — unlike other similar child abuse death cases he’s seen — his offense was “as extreme as it could possibly get.”

“Two-year-olds generally don’t die ... they fall down, they bump into things, they’re trying to learn to walk,” Ehlke said. “They’re not easily broken. Nature has designed that through evolution, in my opinion, because that is going to happen to little children, and in order to overcome that, if you will, it requires some amount of force and sometimes great force.”

Gehde has maintained he didn’t intentionally harm Sophia on April 12, 2016, when she was taken to the hospital after a distraught Gehde called 911 to say that he found her unresponsive on the living room floor in their apartment. She died two days later.

He also has a young son with another woman.

On Thursday, he apologized for not watching the toddler more carefully while he was caring for her, but said he didn’t intentionally harm her because he loved her.

“I did not hurt Sophia. I never hurt Sophia or any other child,” he said. “I know the families are looking for closure and I’m sorry I can’t give that to them. I can’t admit to something I didn’t do.”

Prosecutors have said her injuries — dozens of bruises on her body and blood clots in her head — were caused by abuse from Gehde. Gehde’s attorneys said she died from seizures and medical complications caused by naturally occurring blood clots.

At Thursday’s sentencing hearing, family members of Sophia said Gehde should get the maximum sentence to send a message to child abusers and because they won’t get to watch her grow up and do the things she enjoyed, like playing with other children or swimming.

“Every year for the rest of our lives, we can only envision what Sophia would’ve looked like and what she would be doing,” said Sophia’s grandmother, Tammy Huff. “She is trapped in this world as a 2-year-old.”

Chris Aadland is a reporting intern for the Wisconsin State Journal.