Shades of Guilt

She stepped quickly to the witness stand. She raised her right hand. She swore to tell the truth.

So began the main event in the murder trial of Krystal Voss -- the much-anticipated moment when the accused took the stand to tell her own story.

Wearing a lavender blouse and khaki pants, her hair pulled primly back, Voss looked nothing like the sexpot-seductress-femme fatale portrayed by the prosecution. She looked more like a nerdish Adams State student who'd wandered into the wrong room at the Alamosa County Courthouse. But then, little about the Voss case was quite as advertised.

Her lawyer, Ernest Marquez, got her settled in with a few simple questions: age, height, education, profession. Voss answered: Thirty. Five-four. Various diplomas from Boulder's School of Natural Medicine. Naturopath. "I'm essentially a glorified nutritionist," she explained.

"Did you have a son?" Marquez asked.

"I did," Voss said. "Kyran Leigh Gaston-Voss."

"How old was he?"

"About eighteen months."

"Was he a big baby?"

"Oh, yes," Voss said, laughing.

Marquez showed the jury a brief clip from a home video taken two years ago. Kyran, a chubby, fair-haired toddler, strutted his stuff across the screen. For a moment he seemed alive again, as if none of this had ever happened. As if Kyran hadn't been savagely attacked a few weeks after the video was taken, left sightless and badly brain-damaged, in a vegetative state from which he never recovered; as if Krystal Voss, doting mom and glorified nutritionist, wasn't on trial for killing Kyran.

Over the next hour, Voss would do her best to convince the jury that she did not, could not, have harmed her son. She would try to show the jurors how an innocent person can make seemingly damning statements. She would try to make them understand what it was like to be Krystal Voss, to lose your child in such a brutal way -- and then be blamed for his death.

It was a risky step to take on this, the sixth and final day of her trial. But it had come to this because Voss has always insisted on her innocence. As a rule, guilty people don't testify at their own murder trials. Guilty people don't tell their stories; they let their lawyers do that. Her trip to the stand may have been an act of desperation or one of supreme confidence, but Voss wouldn't have it any other way.

Maybe she didn't understand the way these things are supposed to work. She gave a lengthy interview to Westword about her case long before it went to trial ("The Death of Innocence," July 31, 2003), prompting a blustery request for a gag order from prosecutors. She sent e-mail updates to her supporters blasting a sheriff's investigator and the state's chief witness against her. And she turned down a plea-bargain offer from the district attorney that could have resulted in a prison term of less than five years.

"I am pissed off at the DA and Alamosa County for refusing to do a thorough investigation," Voss wrote supporters late last year. "This is WAR! My baby died and they let the killer go free, I am ready to push them as far as possible! I have a right to a jury trial, and I will get my day in court to show the world who I really am...I have no fear because a really powerful angel boy is helping on the other side."

As a rule, guilty people don't reject plea offers. Guilty people facing a life sentence don't balk at five years. They take the deal, unless they're guilty and deranged.

But the Voss case was the exception to many rules, from its strange beginnings to its stunning verdict two weeks ago. It grew and metastasized according to its own crazy logic, aided and abetted by sloppy police work and shifting witness accounts. In its topsy-turvy, counterintuitive world, the suspect who changed stories the most was deemed the most credible. When the official theory of how Voss injured her son was found to be medically unsound, it was quickly supplemented with an alternate theory for which there was no evidence at all. Yet Voss still expected to prevail, with an angel boy at her side.

When the video clip of Kyran ended, Marquez resumed the examination of his client. Her day in court had arrived.

"Okay," Marquez said. "Tell us, in your own words, what happened on January 31, 2003."

Back on January 31, 2003, it seemed obvious who had hurt Kyran. At least half a dozen witnesses could testify that someone admitted to injuring the boy that day, and it wasn't Krystal Voss.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast