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Legal deck stacked against parents falsely accused of murdering their own children

Kristina Kerlus and her baby, Jocai Davis
Posted at 5:18 PM, Sep 27, 2023

LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — A Las Vegas mother is one of many parents across the country who are working to rebuild their lives after an unthinkable loss... A loss compounded by being falsely accused of crimes they did not commit.

"When I first got arrested, I was in disbelief," recalls Kristina Kerlus. "I was in shock, and I was like, you know, the truth will come out."

In 2019, when the Las Vegas mother was first charged with murdering her baby, she still trusted and had faith in the justice system.

At the time, she thought, "They're just doing their job. They're going to realize this is not it—it's just a misunderstanding, it's perception."

Her youngest son, Jocai Davis, died on Oct. 7, 2018 at just two-and-a-half months of age.

PART ONE: She lost her baby, then her freedom: Las Vegas mother wrongfully accused in shaken baby syndrome case

Kristina was accused of shaking Jocai so violently he experienced a brain bleed that led to his death.

"As time went on, it was like, 'Damn this is real!' I'm really being accused!" recalls Kristina. "It set in. But when you're telling someone you didn't do it, and I know I didn't do it, I didn't hurt my son, and I know, and I'm telling you 'No! That's not what happened! Listen!"

While Kristina was fighting to prove her innocence, Child Protective Services took her other three children.

"If I didn't have children that I needed to live and fight for, I wouldn't be here."

"This case, to me, is the most tragic, unjust case I've ever had," said Las Vegas Defense Attorney Ryan Helmick, who represented Kristina. "It didn't make sense factually from the beginning at all. I felt like it was rubber-stamped, so to speak."

Helmick was able to get the case dismissed after Pediatric Forensic Pathologist Dr. Evan Matshes found what he called a clear-cut medical cause for Jocai's death.

Looking at a slide, Dr. Matshes describes, "A very large, dilated and dead blood vessel which died while Jocai was still alive and ruptured, resulting in this bleeding. It's died because it's fully clotted off with sickled cells."

Jocai--born with Sickle Cell Trait--had died a natural death from complications of Sickle Cell Disease.

Dr. Matshes used the same medical evidence the Clark County Coroner used but saw what they failed to see.

Ryan Helmick: They didn't do a thorough job at all in this.

Darcy Spears: And their failure to be thorough up-ended Kristina's life.

Ryan Helmick: It turned her life upside down for a number of years.

Kristina's lost years, lost time with her other children, lost job and lost freedom has happened to many other parents accused of hurting their children after medical personnel and law enforcement drew conclusions about abuse.

"We shouldn't be scared to take our children to the hospital," said Kristina. "There are so many medical conditions that mimic Shaken Baby Syndrome but they don't do their research! They don't care!"

In 2015, Northwestern University's Medill Justice Project found prosecutors had used Shaken Baby Syndrome diagnoses to charge at least 3,000 people with abuse or murder.

In 2021, the National Institutes of Health published this study of U.S. court cases, identifying 49 shaken baby syndrome criminal convictions that were overturned—20 of them based on medical evidence.

"To say that doctors can diagnose the conduct and intent of some third party actor is really beyond what medicine can support," said Keith Findley, law professor at the University of Wisconsin. He's also co-founder of the Center for Integrity in Forensic Sciences and the Wisconsin Innocence Project.

Findley and his team consult on hundreds of child abuse cases each year, including that of Audrey Edmunds. When she was 34 and pregnant with her third child, the married mother was babysitting and a 7-month-old girl died in her care.

Edmunds spent 11 years in prison and was released in 2008 when her Shaken Baby Syndrome conviction was overturned.

Findley says too often, law enforcement trusts doctors who report abuse without listening to different opinions.

"It's just a recipe for error and for injustice."

Three years before Kristina's case here in Las Vegas, the Medill Justice Project worked with the Washington Post on a project called "Shaken Science" - reporting that more than 200 criminal cases had unraveled as a growing number of doctors and scientists began challenging the diagnosis of Shaken Baby Syndrome.

In some cases--like Kristina's--charges were dropped or dismissed by prosecutors and judges.

In December 2022, Chief Deputy D.A. Michelle Jobe told the court, "Your honor, based on further investigation, the State does not believe it can prove the elements of the criminal charges beyond a reasonable doubt, therefore the state is voluntarily dismissing this case."

In another case, the Death Penalty Information Center reports a federal court overturned an Ohio father's Shaken Baby conviction and death sentence in 2019 based on withheld evidence and false forensic testimony.

"It's happening all across the country and all across the world," said Findley.

And it's not limited to Shaken Baby cases.

"It's been the hardest thing I've ever been through in my life," said a Michigan father who is one of many parents who've had to battle allegations of abuse and neglect, even though they say their children had medical causes for their illnesses and injuries.

"I thought we lived in America where you were innocent until you were proven guilty. We were guilty until we proved we were innocent," said Detroit-area mother Ali Parker.

The Parker's infant and his one-year-old sister were taken from their parents' care for eight months.

Ali and Jim Parker were put on trial--accused of abusing baby Dylan after a pediatrician said his bruising was diagnostic of physical abuse, and x-rays showed old healing rib fractures.

"I was like honey, they think we hurt him!" said Jimmy. "And it was still kind of unbelievable."

The couple proved Dylan's rib fractures were caused by fragile bones from a severe vitamin D deficiency--not abuse.

The judge who dismissed the case apologized to the Parkers.

As for Kristina, she's chosen to use her trauma to be a voice for others.

She has this message for police, prosecutors and the doctors they rely on to build their cases: "Look deeper! Make sure that you're not going to ruin somebody's life! Make sure that you're not just gonna take children away from good parents or a good home, and traumatize the children! Because the system does!"

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