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Thursday, August 3, 2023

Judge Goes Easy on Baby Killer

     On November 1, 2011, police officers in Cortez, Colorado, a town of 8,000 in the southwest corner of the state, responded to a call involving an infant who was not breathing. At the residence shared by Dylan Kuhn and his girlfriend April Coleman, police discovered the corpse of their 6-month-old daughter, Sailor Serenity Kuhn.

     Officers found the baby lying half off the bed with a blanket wrapped around her neck. One didn't have to be an experienced homicide detective to know this was the scene of a crime rather than a natural or accidental death.

     According to the 19-year-old father of the dead baby, she had been crying in her bed when he returned home from a Halloween party. He calmed her down and went to bed himself. The next morning Mr. Kuhn found the baby with the blanket wrapped around her neck. He said that a few days before her death the infant had fallen off the couch and bumped her head.

     Following the autopsy, the Montezuma County Medical Examiner announced that the child's fatal injuries--a subdural hematoma and hemorrhaging in her optic nerve sheath--had been caused by being slammed violently against a soft but unyielding surface such as a mattress. The medical examiner ruled the baby's manner of death a homicide. The head trauma was too severe to have been caused by a fall off a sofa.

     When police interrogators confronted Kuhn with the forensic pathologist's findings, he admitted slamming the baby down hard on the mattress. He also confessed to placing the blanket around his daughter's neck to throw off investigators. He said he didn't mean to hurt his daughter. As to why he had lied to the police, Kuhn said he was scared, and worried what his girlfriend would think of him if he told the truth. The Montezuma County district attorney charged Dylan Kuhn with child abuse causing death and the offense of manslaughter.

     Several months after Kuhn's arrest, District Attorney Russell Wasley, perhaps because of procedural mistakes made by the police and his office, approached Kuhn with a plea-bargain offer. If the defendant came clean, the prosecutor would drop the child abuse causing death charge. If the defendant pleaded guilty to manslaughter, the worst sentence he could get would be four years in prison.

     In accepting the deal, Dylan Kuhn admitted that he had "aggressively" put the baby to bed that night. She had  been crying, he became frustrated, told her to "shut-up," then slammed her body against the mattress. "I put her to bed too hard," he said. After his confession, Kuhn asked to consult with a defense attorney. The defendant said he was too young to understand how much trouble he might be in. (Kuhn was 19, old enough to drive, vote and serve in the military. Under Colorado law he was considered an adult. He had assaulted and killed his 6-month-old daughter. He wasn't retarded or insane. He knew he had committed a terrible crime. That's why he lied to the police.)

     On October 2, 2012, Dylan Kuhn entered his guilty plea to the charge of manslaughter before District Court Judge Douglas Walker. Before imposing his sentence, Judge Walker heard from Kuhn's girlfriend (and mother of the dead baby) and Coleman's mother. According to April Coleman, Kuhn had always been good to his daughter. The defendant's mother, Vicki Espinoza, told the court that she was worried about what might happen to her son if he had to serve time in prison. (Perhaps Kuhn's mother should have worried about what might happen to her granddaughter when her son lost his temper.) "I don't know why it [the case] went this far," she said. "It was an accident." 

     Judge Walker agreed with the defendant's mother that prison might not be a good thing for her son. (Who is it good for?) The judge also noted that the defendant was young, and had no history of violent crime prior to killing his daughter. In addressing Kuhn, the judge said, "I am giving you an opportunity. Make the best of this opportunity, if nothing else, to honor your daughter's memory."

     The judge's "opportunity" was this: He sentenced Dylan Kuhn to 90 days in jail and four years of probation. Lest critics characterized this sentence as insanely lenient, Judge Walker ordered Kuhn to take parenting classes. The judge also ordered Kuhn to undergo mental and substance abuse evaluation. And finally, Kuhn, during his four year probationary period, was prohibited from being alone with any child under the age of ten.

     In June 2015, with 15 months remaining on his four year probation sentence, correction officials filed probation revocation charges against Kuhn for missing his mandatory appointments with his probation officer. Mr. Kuhn had also tested positive for meth and opiates and had failed to engage in ordered counseling. When Kuhn failed to show up at his July 9, 2015 revocation hearing, a warrant was issued for his arrest. On his Facebook page, Kuhn wrote: "Now facing prison time for a crime I didn't commit." A few days later, police officers took Kuhn into custody at his mother's home in Cortez.

     At Kuhn's August 2015 probation revocation hearing, Judge Walker allowed the defendant to plead guilty to the revocation charges in return for a promise to undergo drug treatment.

     If one didn't know better, one would suspect that Kuhn was the judge's son.

     In November 2016, Montezuma County citizens voted to give Judge Walker another term in office. He won 62 percent of the vote.
     Judge Walker retired in June 2022.

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