When 2-year-old Sophia Huff died last year, was it from abuse by a caregiver or because she had choked on food she had eaten?
The question will be left to a Dane County jury, which began hearing evidence Tuesday in the first-degree reckless homicide trial of Joshua Gehde, who was the boyfriend of Sophia’s mother on April 12, 2016, and told police that he found her unresponsive on the floor of their living room. Sophia died at a hospital two days later.
The trial, scheduled to last well into next week, will explore whether Gehde, 27, of Madison, abused the girl while he was alone with her while her mother was at work, causing injuries that ultimately led to her death.
Gehde called 911, he told police, after he came out of the bathroom to find the girl unconscious. He said that earlier, they had eaten breakfast, went to a park to play, then stopped at a convenience store where he bought Ritz crackers, Pop Tarts and Gatorade, then went home to eat them.
Gehde said Sophia apparently wasn’t hungry, so he left some broken-up crackers on her high chair tray, then went into the bathroom to get ready to start his day, and found her when he came out.
On the phone with 911, he performed CPR on Sophia, guided by a dispatcher who calmed him down to stay focused on the task, a call that jurors heard during Deputy District Attorney Matthew Moeser’s opening statement Tuesday.
In their opening statements, Moeser and Vincent Rust, one of Gehde’s lawyers, described Sophia’s death in very different ways — Moeser laying out for jurors a case of abuse that led to brain trauma that caused her death, and Rust telling jurors that Sophia’s brain injury instead was caused by a medical condition in which choking on crackers was the catalyst.
Rust said Sophia vomited what appeared to be crackers onto the living room floor, and had a blockage in her throat.
Rust told the jury that police first concluded that Sophia had died from a tragic accident, but that investigators instead pressed on to show that bruises on the girl’s body, not unusual for a child of her age sometimes described as “clumsy,” had been inflicted by Gehde.
“It’s tunnel vision,” Rust told the jury. “They’re only looking at part of the picture. They’re not looking at the whole thing.”
He said any number of other medical conditions could have caused Sophia’s brain to swell or cause hemorrhages in her brain and eyes, noting that there was no soft tissue damage to her head that would have indicated abuse. He said medical experts would testify how these conditions could have occurred without the girl having been abused.
Moeser said doctors looking at medical scans of the girl, which revealed the hemorrhages, will testify that after those scans it “started to look like a case not of choking but trauma, non-accidental trauma.”
There were other signs as well, Moeser said, including a pronounced hand-shaped bruise on Sophia’s buttocks and 37 separate bruises on her body, counted during an autopsy.
Moeser said the autopsy also noted that some of her hair had been “ripped out of her head,” which Rust attributed to another medical issue that caused the hair to fall out.
“You will reach the conclusion that little Sophia’s body did not betray her,” Moeser told jurors, “her brain did not betray her, the person who betrayed her that day is in this courtroom.”