By Staci Johnson and Kristen Duron
Assistant Criminal District Attorneys in McLennan County
Five-month-old Kiryn Vincent experienced extreme, rapid, back-and-forth whip-lash on July 25, 2016. Some might refer to this type of injury as “shaken baby,” but the medical community has shied away from this term of art in more recent years. While the symptoms remain the same, doctors now recognize that shaking is not the only cause of such injuries. Similar injuries can result from high impacts, such as a speeding car hitting a solid object or someone’s head slamming into a solid surface. Consequently, law enforcement had to answer some questions after examining Kiryn Vincent’s injuries to determine if they were accidental.
As with all injury to a child cases, the primary inquiries were:
1) What is the nature of the injury?
2) When did the injury occur?
3) Who had access to the child at the time of the injury? and
4) Are there any plausible explanations that this injury was an accident? Or must it have been on purpose?
Timeline of events
Lauryn Mundie and Melvin Vincent met while working at an assisted living facility in Waco. In 2015, Mr. Vincent moved into Lauryn’s apartment. She spent quite a bit of time in the relationship tending to Vincent during his frequent bouts with sickle cell anemia, a painful, inherited disorder where some red blood cells are misshapen and can cause infection and even stroke. Things were relatively good until Kiryn’s birth in March 2016. Vincent began to get jealous of the attention Lauryn was giving their son. He referred to Kiryn as a “cry baby” and told her that she “babied him too much.” Their relationship went off and on, with periods where Vincent would leave the apartment for a couple days at a time. Lauryn trusted him with Kiryn and did not think he was capable of violence. However, she had seen him, on occasion, throw and slam household objects when frustrated.
Leading up to the day of his injuries, Kiryn slept poorly, which led to a disagreement between the couple. Lauryn decided that the relationship was over and asked Vincent to pack his things and leave. She had a double shift at the assisted living facility that day, and they agreed Vincent would keep the baby. For the first time since Kiryn’s birth, Vincent took his son to his mother’s home to spend the night.
Vincent’s mother, Lolita Stallworth, later said that upon his arrival, Kiryn seemed happy. At some point, Vincent went to the back patio to talk with his stepfather. Lolita described a moment where she held Kiryn up to the window and he was smiling and responding to Vincent’s gestures through the glass. She emphasized this to prove the strength of the relationship between Vincent and Kiryn, but we also noticed that Kiryn was not crying, nor was he unconscious or expressionless—all responses that immediately follow a shaking-type brain injury.
Lolita and her husband, Kawam Stallworth, said Vincent and Kiryn went to sleep in the family room that evening. When they woke up and got ready for work, nothing was out of the ordinary. Vincent fed Kiryn a bottle and Lolita saw Vincent changing a dirty diaper before she left for work at 9 a.m. Everyone agreed Kiryn was healthy and normal when left in Vincent’s sole custody.
The defendant’s story
Later that day, Lolita and her son brought Kiryn to Providence Hospital in Waco in an unresponsive state. He was immediately intubated before diagnoses could begin and displayed no outward signs of trauma.
Vincent was interviewed by the police at the hospital. He initially claimed he had no idea what caused Kiryn’s condition and later mentioned a cough or teething as the source. Pressed further by the detective, Vincent stated the day before (Sunday), Kiryn needed a diaper change and was laying on the couch. Vincent ran upstairs to get a fresh diaper when Kiryn rolled off the couch on to the carpeted floor. Vincent stated Kiryn cried for a minute or so and then appeared normal. In addition, Kiryn had finished a full bottle and had a normal bowel movement afterward, which was substantiated by evidence in the house. Vincent later added to the original version of events by saying that Kiryn fell from the couch and landed on a large glass ashtray. Later we measured the height of the couch cushion, which was just 18 inches from the floor.
Medical evaluation revealed no exterior signs of trauma. Kiryn had subdural brain hematomas on both the right and left side as well as a significant midline shift of the brain. His optic nerve was severed, rendering him permanently blind. Months of significant medical intervention were required to preserve his life. These major injuries could result from landing on one’s head after falling off a building or from a large TV falling from a height onto one’s head. But with major internal injuries and no reasonable explanation of cause or corresponding external injuries, the only explanation was nonaccidental trauma.
Based on these considerations, the State charged Melvin Vincent with intentionally or knowingly causing serious bodily injury by causing the child to strike an unknown object or by manner and means unknown to the grand jury.
The police report mentioned that Vincent went to an unidentified neighbor’s house to use the phone to call his mother. Some additional work by our office investigator, James Pack, led us to neighbor Crystal Stanfill. She told us that Vincent showed up at her front door with a cell phone in his hand and holding Kiryn, and he asked to use her telephone—he said that his child wasn’t breathing and he needed to call his mother. Crystal did not know the defendant and she found it very suspicious that a man holding a cell phone was asking to use her house phone. He explained that he was out of minutes. Crystal had sleeping children in her house, so she closed the door and went inside to retrieve her phone. By the time she returned, Vincent was talking to a utility worker across the street asking to use his phone. When Crystal approached, she asked Vincent if he wanted her to call 911 and he told her no. He only wanted to call his mom.
Vincent’s mother, Lolita, took anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes to arrive, depending on whose testimony you believe. Vincent admitted it took 45 minutes from the time he noticed Kiryn was having difficulty breathing to his mother’s arrival. Doctors said that a child who was not breathing would be sustaining significant brain damage due to oxygen deprivation and any delay in medical care would have lasting effects. We felt Vincent’s training as a medical aide would have taught him as much, and it compounded his culpability. He performed CPR in response to Kiryn’s erratic gasps for air and loss of skin color. Despite the need for lifesaving measures, he chose to seek his mother’s help instead of medical professionals. Armed with this information, we decided to add a count of injury to a child by omission.
A challenging relationship
During trial preparation, we met with Kiryn’s mother, Lauryn Mundie, to discuss the case and to tell her what to expect. It became evident that she had been involved in a dysfunctional relationship with Mr. Vincent, and as a result, some of her perspectives were warped. For example, she innocently described several narcissistic characteristics in Vincent. Much of their relationship involved Lauryn trying to appease him and taking care of him during his frequent illnesses.
And like anyone in a relationship, Lauryn was not perfect either. She admitted that she still struggled with believing Vincent could have harmed their child. We did not want to influence her testimony but generally outlined why we felt confident pursuing our case against him. She then confessed that even after Vincent was arrested, she reignited the relationship a couple of times. This is a phenomenon we see so often as prosecutors. In our experience, jurors may not understand it, but we can attempt to explain it to them and at the very least put it out there to soften any defense arguments resulting from it. However, we found that Lauren was willing to be completely open and honest to do right by her son.
In our case-in-chief, when Lauryn testified, we had her admit her continued relationship with the defendant. As an interesting side note, testimony showed that neither the defendant nor his family made any effort to continue a relationship with or support Kiryn, which furthered our argument about his selfishness and guilt. It also underlined that Lauren’s family was not vengeful and out “to get” the defendant. Lauren explained that she loved Vincent and had struggled with believing he could hurt their child. She knew what the evidence showed and felt he should be held accountable, but her emotions made it hard for her to truly accept it. This softened the defense’s arguments that “even the mother didn’t believe the defendant did it” and “she continued a relationship with him—surely a mother wouldn’t be in a relationship with someone who hurt her child.” The defense asserted these arguments but did not highlight them as would’ve happened had we not couched Lauren’s actions in terms of a dysfunctional relationship.
We called three doctors to testify in this case: a neurosurgeon, an ophthalmologist, and a pediatric forensic doctor. All doctors worked at McLane Children’s Hospital in Temple, which provides high-level trauma care for Central Texas, where Kiryn had been transferred by helicopter as soon as possible.
Dr. Frank Stephen Harris, a neurosurgeon with 49 years of experience, testified first. He explained to the jury what Kiryn’s head looked like when he arrived at the hospital. Kiryn’s brain had swollen so much that a portion of his skull had to be removed to give him relief. Even after the piece of skull was taken away, his brain began to spill out of the skull. Most important to Dr. Harris’s testimony was that he noted no active brain bleeding, that Kiryn’s brain bleed appeared to be acute—meaning it was six to 12 hours old. (Dr. Harris operated on Kiryn about six hours after the child first arrived in the Providence emergency room in Waco.) Obviously, Dr. Harris did not pinpoint the time of the injury, but he was able to explain to the jury that blood of different ages has different colors and consistencies, and based on his training and experience, the blood in Kiryn’s brain was relatively fresh. This type of injury would not lurk silently like an aneurysm for hours or days before suddenly rupturing.
Dr. Harris also provided the jury with an idea of what types of behaviors and symptoms a child with this type of brain bleed would exhibit: He would be unable or unwilling to eat or poop, and he would be lethargic, if not unconscious. This testimony was important to our timeline of events leading up to Kiryn’s injury.
Dr. Luke Potts, an ophthalmologist, was our rock star. As we began trial preparations and reviewed his report with him, we learned that not only was the doctor an expert in ophthalmology, but he also had a Ph.D. in an extremely specialized field: retinal microcirculatory physiology. In other words, we had hit a gold mine in Dr. Potts because he had the highest possible level of education in retinal anatomy. Dr. Potts testified early in our case so the jury had a good idea what types and degrees of injuries Kiryn sustained. He said this was a textbook case of what would have been called “shaken baby syndrome.” In his years of practice, Kiryn was the best example of a “shaken baby” that he had ever seen. Kiryn’s retina was so damaged that when Dr. Potts viewed it through his specialized retinal camera, he was unable to make out the basic structure of the eye. Dr. Potts contrasted Kiryn’s eye photos with photos of a normal retina to show the jury what they should be seeing and what was absent in Kiryn’s retina. Without some obvious source of external injury, the only explanation was nonaccidental trauma. The movement Kiryn experienced was so violent that it ripped the optic nerve from his eyeball. It came as no surprise to Dr. Potts that Kiryn remains completely blind five years after this injury—his pupils do not even respond to direct light.
Our case concluded with Dr. Erika Ward, a pediatric forensic doctor, who reviewed all of Kiryn’s medical records. She determined that his injuries appeared to be nonaccidental in nature. She summarized the previous medical testimony and findings as well as provided the jury with a future prognosis, which is grim. It included probable paralysis, developmental deficits, blindness, and even potential death. This prognosis was relevant to prove that Kiryn sustained serious bodily injury.
All our doctors indicated that a fall of 18 inches onto a glass ashtray could not have caused Kiryn’s injuries. In addition, he behaved normally for several hours after falling off the couch, including eating, drinking, and responding to visual events around him. These normal behaviors contradicted the fall as the source of his injuries.
The defendant’s testimony
After our case-in-chief, the defendant decided to testify on his own behalf. His testimony highlighted his self-centered view of things. He spent more time bemoaning his medical issues as a person with sickle cell anemia than he did discussing his child. It became incredibly clear that he did not have any regrets or angst over his child’s permanent damage. He admitted he even left the hospital after being told that Kiryn was unlikely to make it through the night because Vincent was cold. The defendant established he was the only person who had care and custody of Kiryn during the timeframe of his injury. Vincent also admitted that he should’ve called 911 sooner—even if his cell phone was out of minutes, the 911 feature would still function. He stated his mother’s house was “a couple of blocks” from the hospital, but he felt that it was too far to walk in the heat while holding his child.
The defendant never admitted to getting angry with Kiryn or abusing him. He stated Kiryn was fussy in the days leading up to his injuries but “he never got under my skin or anything.” Vincent maintained the baby spontaneously turned pale and started gasping for air, which prompted the defendant to seek out his own mother’s assistance.
The jury returned guilty verdicts on both Injury to a Child counts in less than an hour.
With permission from Kiryn’s mother, Lauryn, we allowed the jury to see Kiryn for the first time. Lauryn pushed Kiryn, who had recently turned 6 years old, in his wheelchair into the courtroom where he remained until punishment concluded. It was a powerful moment for us and the jury. What was most shocking during this moment was the defendant’s complete lack of reaction. Vincent did not look at his own child.
Once argument began, we summarized testimony explaining to the jury that Vincent sentenced Kiryn to an existence some would find worse than death. Kiryn will undergo a series of surgeries as long as he lives. Lauryn told jurors it was particularly difficult after the surgeries because they never knew if he was receiving enough pain medication, as he was unable to communicate. We told jurors that Kiryn was trapped inside his body, unable to interact or communicate effectively with the outside world. What worse torture could there be than being in pain and unable to tell anyone?
We asked jurors to think about the word “life.” What does “life” mean to them? We suggested that life may make one think of relationships and certain milestones. Doctors do not expect his injuries to shorten his lifespan (they say he could and probably will outlive his mother, and she worries about who will care for him when that happens); however, he will not get to experience any of life’s major milestones, and neither will his mother. He will never have a girlfriend, go to prom, graduate high school, get a job, get married, or have children.
Particularly poignant was the photo that we showed the jury of Kiryn at school; it’s reprinted below. To be clear, testimony explained that while Kiryn goes to school, he doesn’t do anything meaningful during the day and certainly doesn’t receive what most people would think of as education. However, one photo from school was everyone’s favorite one of Kiryn. In the photo, a classmate is handing him a dandelion, and Kiryn’s head is thrown back with what appears to be a smile on his face.
We argued that everyone likes that picture because it makes us feel good. We tell ourselves that Kiryn can experience happiness and relationships. But the reality is much darker. The smile on his face is probably not associated with any emotion at all and is rather a muscular tic. He cannot see, so the expression on his face has nothing to do with the dandelion in front of his face. To cope with the fact that a child exists under these circumstances, we trick ourselves to feel better. We smile because we believe he is smiling. And all of this occurred because the defendant couldn’t handle being a father. He was having some relationship difficulties and health problems. As a result of his stress, the defendant took out his frustration on the one person who could not defend himself. During testimony he told jurors that he currently works at an assisted living facility. How can a man who snaps on the weak and defenseless be trusted in daily situations with our elderly?
Ultimately, we asked jurors what the life of Kiryn and his mother were worth. The defendant, in his act of selfishness, robbed them both of what we consider life. They are living and breathing but that’s not the measure of a meaningful existence. Meanwhile, the defendant took no responsibility and showed no remorse.
Trial outcome and social media backlash
We were not certain how the jury would assess punishment on a defendant with no criminal history or other bad acts. However, neither of us were prepared for the sentence: The jury assessed punishment at eight years in prison on Count I, first-degree injury to a child, and seven years on Count II, first-degree injury to a child by omission. It was difficult to fathom that a jury who saw Kiryn and believed that his medical issues were caused by the defendant’s action and inaction would assess a single-digit term of years.
If Kiryn had been only slightly more injured, the jury could well have been listening to the facts of a capital murder trial—a point we made in punishment argument. The defendant’s actions robbed Kiryn of any quality of life and all normal milestones. The defendant sentenced Kiryn’s mother to a lifetime of intensive care for her son, who will never progress. Where was the sense of compassion one expects from a father who sees his son in the courtroom in a persistent wakeful but unaware state? How can a man weep on the stand for his own sickle cell diagnosis and not his son’s devastating injuries? As a point of comparison, we tried a multi-county evading with a vehicle that same month and received 50 years in prison. While that defendant was habitual, it was still hard to comprehend how justice was meted out equally in both cases.
Making matters worse, we read the social media comments on a news article about the case. The community seemed outraged that this defendant received what they deemed a light sentence. Unfortunately, the judge did not let us speak with jurors before they were released, and we continued to wonder what had happened. Then we saw a post that said the following:
“I sat on the jury for this case. I know most of the others probably won’t say anything, but I feel compelled to say my peace [sic]. 10 out of 12 of us wanted a much harsher sentence. The remaining 2 wanted probation. I can assure you the outcome that was reached is the only one that included time. I am incredibly disappointed and honestly heartbroken for the family. It was hard for each and every one of us in that room. My heart goes out to everyone involved.”
To say that this explanation was both a source of comfort and frustration would be an understatement.
We would love to say that we have peace about this case, but we cannot help comparing every case that receives a long sentence with the facts of this case. Yet, for a defendant with no previous criminal history, eight years is still a win. The jury could’ve easily sentenced him to probation, but we convinced a jury with two holdouts to give him prison time. Despite our disappointment in the verdict we can be proud to know that Kiryn did receive a form of justice. Perhaps the way that justice was meted out in this case is a sign that our system isn’t perfect. Nevertheless, Kiryn Vincent continues to be loved by his mother and support system. Their care for him provides an example of the preciousness of life and all that we take for granted.