Judge Kuenhold's Harmless Errors

The Colorado Judicial Branch has named its Outstanding Judicial Officer of the Year: District Judge O. John Kuenhold of Alamosa.

Lots of people think highly of Kuenhold, who's been on the bench since 1981 and chief judge of his district since 2004. He's worked long and hard on issues ranging from community corrections to case management and seems thoughtful and even-handed on the bench.

But Kuenhold was also the judge in one of the most disturbing murder trials ever held in Alamosa — the 2004 trial of 32-year-old Krystal Voss for the death of her 19-month-old son, Kyran. As we reported here, last winter the Colorado Court of Appeals found that the trial was marred by judicial errors and improper conduct by the prosecution but decided those errors were "harmless" enough that the verdict should stand.

In 2003 Voss took her limp and unresponsive son to an Alamosa emergency room, saying he'd been injured while in the care of a family friend, Patrick Ramirez. But confronted with evidence that Kyran's injuries didn't match the fall he described, Ramirez changed his story and blamed Voss, claiming she'd shaken the baby and then persuaded him to cover for her.

The case against Voss had enough problems to take up two extensive features in Westword, "Shades of Guilt" and "The Death of Innocence." But in the closing moments of the trial, prosecutor Mike Gonzales abruptly changed the state's theory of the crime to suggest Voss must have shaken her baby shortly before Ramirez arrived, in a desperate effort to counter testimony from Kyran's father that the baby was behaving normally hours after Voss supposedly left him brain-damaged. (The original version relied on a possibly coerced "confession" she gave the cops after extensive sleep deprivation.) The appeals court decided that Judge Kuenhold handled this bizarre change of strategy properly by advising the jury that there was no evidence to support it; yet the fresh accusation may have played a large part in the jury's decision to find Voss guilty of child abuse resulting in death.

Voss is now serving a 20-year prison sentence for a crime that her family says she couldn't have committed, a crime so puzzling and motiveless that even the prosecutor can't credibly explain it. Her effort to get the Colorado Supreme Court to review the appeal court's decision was recently denied. – Alan Prendergast

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Sean Cronin