Fatal Child-Abuse Charges Dismissed in "Shaken Baby" Case

Krystal Voss was turned down for parole five times because she denied any involvement in her son's death.
Krystal Voss was turned down for parole five times because she denied any involvement in her son's death. Alan Prendergast
Krystal Voss lost her nineteen-month-old son. Then she lost her freedom. But after serving more than a decade behind bars, she's finally heard the two little words she's dreamed that a judge would be uttering some day: Case dismissed.

In 2004 Voss was found guilty by an Alamosa jury of fatal child abuse in the death of her son and sentenced to twenty years in prison. But last month Alamosa District Court Judge Pattie Swift ruled that Voss's conviction should be thrown out because her attorneys at trial failed to summon any medical experts to challenge the prosecution's claim that Kyran Gaston-Voss's death was the result of a violent shaking. The decision came after new testimony by nationally recognized pediatric specialists that the toddler's injuries, including a devastating brain injury, could have been caused by an accidental fall.

On Friday, September 8, another judge dismissed all charges against Voss at the request of 12th Judicial District Attorney Crista Newmyer-Olsen. Voss learned about the DA's motion for dismissal in a text message from her attorney shortly before the hearing; a few minutes later, her nightmare was over at last.

"I'm so grateful that I have my freedom," she says. "Now I just want to clear my name."

The case, extensively covered by Westword over the years, attracted widespread attention because of the ongoing medical controversy over Shaken Baby Syndrome, or SBS, which played a large role in Voss's conviction. On January 31, 2003, Voss showed up in an Alamosa hospital emergency room with her unresponsive son, saying she'd left him 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 Ramirez fell on top of him. Kyran started hollering, then seemed dizzy and unable to stand.

"Unfortunately, in my case, it didn't seem to matter what really happened."

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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, while the investigation into how he suffered such a severe head injury lurched into overdrive. After being assured by the child-abuse team at Children's that the head trauma was more likely a case of shaking than a fall, one police investigator accused Ramirez of making up the story of the fall to protect Voss, with whom he'd had a sexual relationship; the investigator also obtained a "confession" from a sleep-deprived Voss that she might have briefly shaken Kyran in frustration the night before she left him with Ramirez.

At trial, the prosecution's medical expert asserted that the fatal injuries were consistent with a violent shaking. The jury took only six hours to deliver its verdict: guilty of knowing and reckless child abuse resulting in death.

Dr. Robert Bux, the coroner who conducted the autopsy on Kyran, told Westword in 2003 that he didn't believe in SBS and found it "difficult to swallow the concept." Many critics of the syndrome within the medical establishment regard it as junk science. Yet the defense never called Bux (who later changed the official cause of death in the case from "homicide" to "unknown") as a witness to refute the prosecution's medical expert.

On Friday, Newmyer-Olsen indicated that she'd chosen not to pursue a new trial in the case because of a lack of resources and the fact that Voss had already served most of her sentence. Attorney Jeff Walsh, who worked with Voss for years to overturn her conviction, believes that if the case did go to a new trial, "a new jury that was not tainted by one-sided and misleading theoretical evidence on Shaken Baby Syndrome would have wasted little time in acquitting Ms. Voss of any wrongdoing."

His client, Walsh adds,"has truly endured.... She never once gave up hope of walking out of prison without the scarlet letter of being a convicted killer. But unfortunately, this dismissal is not a complete exoneration. It’s not like this was a DNA case where we conclusively proved her innocence. Nevertheless, on retrial, we would have presented expert testimony from nationally renowned experts, who would have testified that the fall scenario was a more probable explanation for Kyran’s fatal injuries than any type of shaking episode. On retrial, the uncorrupted evidence would have quite simply pointed to the fall scenario. This case sounds like a fall. It looks like a fall. It was a fall."

Voss was a model prisoner and was moved to a halfway house in 2013. But she was rejected for parole five times "because I wouldn't say I did it," she says. She wants to get her record expunged and hopes to be involved in the future in efforts to reform the justice system.

"Unfortunately, in my case, it didn't seem to matter to [the authorities] what really happened," she says. "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. So much never sees the light of day."
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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