UTAH STATE PRISON — Throughout his trial, Joshua Jay Harding maintained his innocence.
In 2015, Harding pleaded no contest to child abuse, a third-degree felony, and negligent homicide, a class A misdemeanor, for the 2012 death of 3-month-old Paxton Stokes. Harding consistently denied harming the boy, but acknowledged in the plea agreement that he could not dispute at trial that he was alone with the infant before he died.
Paramedics found Paxton limp and not breathing when called to the home of Harding and Brianna Brown. Brown was Paxton's mother but Harding was not the father.
Paxton was pronounced dead upon arrival at Utah Valley Hospital. In addition to the "nonaccidental closed head injuries" that killed Paxton, an autopsy indicated the boy had a number of injuries that a child his age could not have sustained on his own, such as bruising, abrasions around his neck, injuries to his genitalia and possible broken bones in the process of healing.
As part of the plea deal, prosecutors recommended Harding only be sentenced to probation. But 4th District Judge Derek Pullan felt Harding deserved a harsher penalty and sentenced him to up to five years in the Utah State Prison for the child abuse charge, with an additional year for the negligent homicide. He ordered the sentences to run concurrently.
On Dec. 4, Harding had his first parole hearing, during which he again maintained his innocence.
"I’ve always been sweet to babies. I’ve always taken the best care I can of all children,” Harding, now 35, told Utah Board of Pardons and Parole member Chyleen Richey in a recording of the hearing.
When Richey asked why he took the plea deal if he didn't do anything wrong, Harding said after discussing the case with his attorney, he felt the cards were stacked against him because the case was in Utah County, a dead baby was involved, and there was no real explanation of how the baby died.
"He just told me that if I wanted to go to war, that we can and we have very good chances. But he also told me to be aware that if we lost, I’d probably be facing 25 years,” he said.
Harding did not make a statement at his sentencing, with his attorney explaining to the judge that he was too emotional. During his parole hearing, Harding was still reluctant to talk about Paxton's death.
"Could we just continue on elsewhere please?” he asked Richey.
"That’s, unfortunately, what we’re here to do," she replied. "I kind of need to hear about what happened."
Harding again said he did not harm the infant.
Brown was also charged and convicted of three counts of endangerment of a child, a third-degree felony, and sentenced to 90 days in jail.
Harding told the parole board that until Paxton's death, he and Brown never had any issues.
"We never had one argument before all of this. Everything was great,” he said.
It wasn't until the story of Paxton's death was reported by the media and the case dragged on for two more years that Harding said Brown's attitude seemed to change.
"At first no. But then, at the end, I don’t know, we stopped communicating. But yes, it seemed like she did,” Harding replied when asked if he believed Brown blamed him for Paxton's death.
Richey noted during the hearing that Harding's risk assessment has been determined to be "low" in every category the board keeps track of. Harding has had no write-ups since being incarcerated and is currently being housed in the Box Elder County Jail. If he were to serve his full sentence, he would be released in 2020. But Richey noted that based on state sentencing guidelines, he has already served more time than recommended.
The full five-member board will now decide whether to grant Harding parole or set a date for another hearing.