When Mistakes Don't Matter

The justice system isn't very good at confessing its own crimes. Even when officials admit that mistakes were made, they rarely take the kind of action that might actually correct them.

In the case of Krystal Voss, a 32-year-old mother convicted of child abuse in the death of her nineteen-month-old son, Kyran, the Colorado Court of Appeals found that her trial was marred by errors on the part of the judge and improper conduct by the prosecution. But those missteps weren't serious enough, the three-judge panel ruled earlier this month, to affect the verdict -- despite some disturbing evidence to the contrary.

The ruling means that Voss will continue to serve the twenty-year prison sentence she received two years ago for a crime that she and a network of supporters say she couldn't possibly have committed. And it highlights the fact that even the Alamosa District Attorney's Office doesn't have a clear notion of how the crime happened.

"I'm disappointed in the ruling, but I'm not surprised anymore," says Damien Gaston, Kyran's father, who continues to defend Voss's innocence though the couple are now divorced. "I'm glad they agree that what happened was improper. But as far as the errors being harmless -- it wasn't their family that was destroyed by this."

On January 31, 2003, Voss took Kyran, limp and unresponsive, to an Alamosa emergency room. She told doctors that she'd left her son with a family friend, Patrick Ramirez, while she went to work at a local health-food store. Ramirez had called her there, she said, and told her to come home quickly: Kyran had fallen and hit his head.

Ramirez told the same story to sheriff's investigators later that day. But Kyran's injuries didn't match up with the fall Ramirez described; he had multiple bruises and a subdural hematoma, often found in cases of shaken babies. Ramirez, who'd been having an affair with Voss, changed his story repeatedly in subsequent interviews, finally claiming that Voss had shaken the baby and then persuaded him to make up the story of the fall.

Police then obtained a statement from Voss admitting that she'd briefly shaken a fussy Kyran the night before. She was arrested and charged with felony child abuse. The charge was upped to murder after Kyran died a few weeks later from his head injury, which had left him brain-damaged and blind.

The case had numerous problems, from the conflicting accounts of the state's chief witness, Ramirez, to the unusual circumstances of the "confession" obtained from Voss, which wasn't taped. Most troubling of all is the fact that both Kyran's father and grandfather say the child was behaving normally hours after Voss supposedly shook him -- yet even the prosecution's own child-abuse expert testified that the symptoms of his severe brain injury would have been immediate and alarming ("Shades of Guilt," November 25, 2004).

In the closing moments of Voss's trial, Chief Deputy District Attorney Mike Gonzales abruptly changed his theory of the crime to suggest that Voss had shaken her baby on the morning of January 31, shortly before leaving him with Ramirez, rather than the night before. The defense objected, and Judge John Kuenhold made a point of reminding the jury that "there is no evidence of a shaking [that] morning."

Voss's appeal centered on this sudden change of strategy. Colorado Court of Appeals Judge Arthur Roy decided that the prosecution had acted improperly -- but no harm, no foul. Kuenhold's remark "properly limited any prejudice that the defendant could have suffered," Roy wrote in his opinion, which was joined in by the other members of the panel. "It is presumed that the jury understood and heeded the trial court's instruction."

But did they? As Westword reported in 2004, Gonzales shrugged off Kuenhold's rebuke, telling the jurors that they were allowed to make "reasonable inferences" about what might have happened to Kyran. And one juror interviewed by Westword after the verdict gave a medically improbable interpretation of Kyran's injuries, which suggests that the jury might have misunderstood the expert testimony and embraced the prosecutor's new scenario, however unsupported by the facts. "He could have been somewhat normal for a while," the juror said. "Then abnormalities start popping up before the herniation of the brain."

Of course, it's difficult to read jurors' minds this long after the verdict -- but that's exactly what the appeals court decision presumes to do. It's one more twist in the tragedy that three of the most powerful judges in the state are big enough to admit that the system made a mistake -- and small enough to maintain that it doesn't matter.

"There's no way for them to measure the emotion that was going on in that courtroom," Gaston notes. "The prosecution's strategy was to shock people with this horrific murder and get them to overlook the holes in their case. When the evidence is so weak and you have confessions that contradict each other from two different people, how can you say it doesn't matter what they did in the trial?"

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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