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Shaken to the Core

The prosecutor asked for thirty years. Probation officials suggested 24. Under Colorado law, the minimum sentence for knowing and reckless child abuse resulting in death is sixteen years in prison.

Last week, Alamosa District Judge John Kuenhold decided to split the difference. He gave Krystal Voss twenty years for causing the death of her seventeen-month-old son, Kyran, plus five years of mandatory parole.

The judge's sentence failed to dispel disturbing questions about the Voss matter, one of the strangest shaken-baby cases to ever hit the Colorado courts. The official investigation of Kyran's injuries had originally focused on a male babysitter who also happened to be Voss's former lover -- and chief accuser. Voss's trial last fall was riddled with conflicting testimony and evidence of dubious police work, but it took the jury only a few hours to find Voss guilty ("Shades of Guilt," November 25, 2004).

Family members showed up in force to support Voss at her sentencing hearing, including her husband, Damien Gaston, who was present the night Voss supposedly injured their son. But the family's pleas for mercy couldn't alter Kuenhold's decision. "This case occurs in a context where there is no prior history that would have led me or anyone else to think that there would be a death," the judge said. "But we have a circumstance in which, unfortunately, what occurred cannot be undone."

Two years and one day before her sentencing, Voss took her unconscious son to an Alamosa emergency room. She told doctors that she'd left Kyran with Patrick Ramirez III, a friend visiting from Denver, while she went to work at a local health-food store; Ramirez had summoned her home, telling her that Kyran had fallen off his shoulders and hit his head.

Ramirez told essentially the same story to Harry Alejo, an Alamosa County Sheriff's Office investigator. But Kyran's injuries didn't match up with the account of a fall; he had multiple bruises on his chest and abdomen and a subdural hematoma, often found in shaken babies. After he was arrested and charged with child abuse, Ramirez claimed that the baby had already been hurt when he arrived in Alamosa that day and that Voss had admitted "losing her cool" and shaking Kyran. He'd lied, he said, because he was still in love with Voss, with whom he'd had a brief sexual relationship -- with her husband's permission.

Ramirez's changing story shifted the investigation to Voss, who signed a written statement for Alejo admitting that she'd become frustrated with a fussy Kyran the night before Ramirez arrived and had shaken him briefly, "probably more violently than I meant to." Voss was soon arrested; the charge was raised to murder a few weeks later, after Kyran, brain-damaged and sightless from his injuries, died in foster care.

In court, Voss insisted that her statement to Alejo had been coerced, and both she and her husband testified that Kyran was behaving normally the morning of the day he died -- a medical impossibility, experts say, if the shaking the previous night was severe enough to cause the brain injuries Kyran suffered. But Judge Kuenhold mused that Voss's own admissions to authorities about her son had made a strong impact on the jury.

"I think it fair to say that it was your statements to law enforcement, to social services, and directly to this jury when you testified that weighed as the most important evidence in this case," Kuenhold said.

Ramirez, who pleaded guilty to a charge of tampering with evidence and was sentenced to a year in prison, was the prosecution's chief witness in the case. He was paroled late in December. Despite Voss's conviction, several family members still blame him for Kyran's death. They say they're putting their hopes in the appeal process. Voss could be eligible for parole in less than ten years, but her insistence on her innocence will probably count against her in parole hearings.

"An innocent person will end up serving the maximum sentence," says Steve Gaston, Voss's father-in-law, "while the person who put her there is already walking the streets. The system is insane."

Voss told Kuenhold that no sentence he could impose could be harsher than the knowledge that her son is dead. "Nothing and nobody can bring him back," she said. "I live in a prison of remorse and regret for the rest of my days."

 
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