A woman who spent ten years in prison before being cleared of any wrongdoing has filed a federal lawsuit against a former police detective and an ex-caseworker in Alamosa County, claiming that they fabricated evidence to obtain her conviction on charges of fatally injuring her nineteen-month-old son.
In 2004, Krystal Voss was found guilty by an Alamosa jury of fatal child abuse in the death of her son and sentenced to twenty years; prosecutors had argued that Kyran Gaston-Voss's injuries were the result of a violent shaking. But last year Alamosa District Court Judge Pattie Swift ruled that Voss's conviction should be overturned, after new testimony by nationally recognized pediatric specialists that the toddler's devastating brain damage could have been caused by an accidental fall.
Voss, who remarried following her release and now goes by the name Krystal O'Connell, has always maintained her innocence, saying that her son's injuries were sustained while he was being watched by a friend. Her lawsuit contends that investigators concealed exculpatory evidence and exploited her grief over the loss of her son to build a bogus case against her, including a coerced, false confession.
The case has been extensively covered by Westword over the years, including three cover stories, and attracted widespread attention because of the medical controversy over Shaken Baby Syndrome, or SBS, a diagnosis that many medical experts regard as "junk science" but which played a significant role in O'Connell's conviction.
On January 31, 2003, O'Connell showed up in an Alamosa hospital emergency room with Kyran, who was limp and unresponsive. She explained that earlier that afternoon, she’d left Kyran in the care of a friend while she went to work at a local health-food store. About an hour after arriving at work, she’d gotten a phone call from the friend, Patrick Ramirez, telling her to come home because something was wrong with Kyran.
Ramirez told her he’d been playing outside with the boy on his shoulders. He’d stumbled. Kyran fell, and the boy might have hit his head on the ground. Ramirez fell on top of him. Kyran started hollering, then seemed dizzy and unable to stand.
The emergency-room doctor noted bruises on the child’s abdomen and signs of an acute subdural hematoma — a bleeding inside the skull. Kyran was soon flown to the intensive-care unit at Children’s Hospital in Denver. After being assured by the child-abuse team at Children's that the child's head trauma was more likely a case of shaking than a fall, police investigator Harry Alejo accused Ramirez of making up his story in order to protect O'Connell, with whom he'd had a sexual relationship. According to O'Connell's lawsuit, Alejo threatened his suspect and "fabricated a story for Mr. Ramirez to tell" — that O'Connell had shaken the child and then asked Ramirez to cover up for her.
That was the story Ramirez told at O'Connell's trial, insisting he had lied in his earlier account of a fall. Alejo also obtained a "confession" from a distraught, sleep-deprived O'Connell that she might have briefly shaken Kyran in frustration the night before she left him with Ramirez. The lawsuit maintains that the written statement doesn't reflect what O'Connell actually told Alejo and that Alejo "told her what to write." The complaint also alleges that county caseworker Marcia Tuggle falsified records to indicate that O'Connell had admitted to violently shaking her son.
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At trial, despite various issues with Ramirez's changing story, the circumstances under which O'Connell supposedly made incriminating statements, the lack of any history of abuse in the family, and the flaws in the SBS claims, the jury took only six hours to deliver its verdict: guilty of knowing and reckless child abuse resulting in death.
Alejo is now the chief investigator for the Twelfth Judicial District Attorney's Office. The federal complaint states that O'Connell "suffered tremendous damage, including but not limited to physical harm, mental suffering, and loss of normal life," as a result of her conviction.
One of the claims in O'Connell's lawsuit is that the actions of Tuggle and Alejo resulted in a malicious prosecution. But in vacating the conviction last year, Judge Swift rejected arguments of prosecutorial misconduct. Instead, she ruled that O'Connell deserved a new trial because her defense attorneys failed to summon any medical experts to challenge the prosecution's shaken-baby theory; a second judge then dismissed all charges at the request of the DA's office. Alejo and Tuggle both denied any improper conduct in their investigation when they testified at O'Connell's trial years ago.
"Unfortunately, in my case, it didn't seem to matter to [the authorities] what really happened," O'Connell told Westword last year. "I came across a lot of women in prison who had similar stories, where what happened wasn't what it was made out to be."