One by one, Joshua VanHoutan's relatives made impassioned pleas Wednesday in front of Anoka County District Judge Tammi Fredrickson. They told stories about a humble man and loving father. A good person who deserved a second chance. Definitely not the child murderer the prosecution was making him out to be, they said.
As the sentencing hearing reached its second hour, Fredrickson noted how his entire family had forgiven VanHoutan, 26, for the death of his 5-month-old baby Alexis, to which he had pleaded guilty. Their support, the judge said, was "off the charts." She believed he was remorseful and hadn't intended to hurt the child.
Yet, Fredrickson said she was dismayed by VanHoutan's unwillingness to admit he shook the girl to death. Noting that he will still be a young man when he gets out of prison, she sentenced him to nearly 11 years.
Both the prosecution and VanHoutan's attorney chose their words carefully afterward.
"I'm not pleased," defense attorney Steve Meshbesher said. "I am very respectful of the court and the process, but I'm not pleased with the results."
Prosecutor Paul Young said that no matter what sentence was imposed, "you still have the tragedy of the death of a 5-month-old child."
VanHoutan was charged with unintentional second-degree murder. In June, he entered an Alford plea, meaning he maintained his innocence but acknowledged that prosecutors had enough evidence to gain a conviction.
According to court documents, the baby's mother, Tina Ginter, told police that VanHoutan called her at work on May 11, 2011, to say that something was wrong with Alexis. The mother went home and took the girl to a hospital, where brain injuries were diagnosed. Alexis died several days later after life support was removed.
VanHoutan told police at the time that Alexis had been crying "a little bit," seemed sleepier than usual that morning and would open her eyes only "a little bit." When he put her back to sleep, he said, she cried briefly and settled down. A few minutes later, he said, she wouldn't wake up and was limp, the charges said.
Ginter, who became VanHoutan's fiancée shortly before Alexis' death, said during Wednesday's hearing that she knew firsthand that VanHoutan was a good father who always put his three children's needs first. He was the only person who could make Alexis giggle, she said.
"Our children adore him," she said. "They cry every night, wondering when Daddy is coming home."
VanHoutan wiped tears from his eyes after a deputy removed his handcuffs to allow him to read his statement. He said he regretted that he went to work instead of taking Alexis immediately to the hospital on May 11. "I miss Alexis so much," he said. "I'm not an abusive, violent person. I am not a murderer."
Defense, prosecution requests
Assistant County Attorney Brenda Sund asked for a 15-year sentence, the longest possible under the state's sentencing guideline. She also said the judge should disregard testimony of two medical experts who were allowed to testify in a rare hearing several weeks after VanHoutan entered his plea.
One of them, she said, came to his opinion that Alexis' death wasn't caused by shaking before he looked at any of her medical records. "I'm begging the court not to forget what happened to Alexis," she said. "She was treated with cruelty. He put Alexis in her crib and went to work when he knew she was suffering."
The children were not left unattended.
Meshbesher wanted Fredrickson to make a significant departure from sentencing guidelines because he said VanHoutan was unaware Alexis had a pre-existing medical condition that contributed to her death after she was shaken. VanHoutan has taken responsibility for his actions but should receive an appropriate punishment, Meshbesher said.
"I don't know how the court does it," he said to the judge. "You have a lot on your shoulders. My heart goes out to you."
Fredrickson said she wasn't persuaded by the medical testimony and would have needed a substantial and compelling reason to hand down a lesser sentence.
After the hearing, Meshbesher, appearing exhausted and frustrated, said some of Fredrickson's comments about the medical experts weren't factual. He believes this creates a "legal landscape" for an appeal.
"Every person affected by this case, except for law enforcement, gave 100 percent support to Joshua," he said.
David Chanen • 612-673-4465