Reality TV came to a Morristown courtroom on Wednesday. It was no fun.
Superior Court Judge Stephen Taylor watched four hours of police bodycam footage, of a distraught mother detained at a hospital last summer after the death of her 3-year-old boy.
Krystal Straw is charged with covering up for her boyfriend, Edwin Urbina of Morristown, who is accused of murdering Straw’s son Liam in an East Hanover hotel in the early hours of Aug. 13, 2021.
Morris County Assistant Prosecutor Tara Wang wants the judge to allow the bodycam video as evidence.
Straw’s public defender, Tracy Denholtz, says it should be inadmissible because Straw was not informed of her rights against self-incrimination when police recorded their conversations.
Authorities assert Straw came home from her job at a convenience store, spent two hours packing up Urbina’s belongings, then dropped him off in Morristown before taking Liam to Morristown Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.
The county medical examiner ruled the death a homicide.
According to investigators, Straw told her daughter to keep quiet at the hospital. And they say Urbina, an ex-convict, directed Straw to deny his presence at the hotel and delete his contact information and messages from her mobile phone.
Footage shown Wednesday would seem to support the prosecution’s claim of a coverup: Straw never mentions Urbina.
Based partly on statements from Liam’s 5-year-old sister, authorities contend Urbina thrashed the boy, possibly beating him with a slipper.
But on camera, Straw attributes bruises on Liam’s body to a tumble they took when she attempted to deal with his distress from a respiratory condition.
She tells Morristown Police Officer Connor Johnson that she tried CPR, and rushed her son to the hospital. She also insists she is a good mother, with no criminal record.
The prosecution plans to try Straw and Urbina together, although Straw, 29, has indicated she is willing to accept a plea offer that would send her to prison for 13 years. The deal hinges on Urbina, 28, agreeing to a 50-year sentence in exchange for a guilty plea, and would require Straw to testify against him.
The pair did not acknowledge each other Wednesday as they sat at opposite sides of the courtroom–Straw in a Morris County Jail orange jumpsuit, Urbina in a yellow one.
Guarded by sheriff’s officers and shackled at the ankles, both were removed from handcuffs so they could jot notes during the day-long hearing on Wang’s evidence motion.
Urbina faces life behind bars with no parole if convicted of the first-degree murder of a child. Straw could get 25 years in state prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars of fines if found guilty of child endangerment and hindering prosecution charges.
‘THE WORST DECISION OF MY LIFE’
Hospital personnel had reached out to law enforcement when Straw brought Liam and his sister to the emergency department around 5 am last Aug. 13.
As doctors tried to save her son, Straw allowed nurses to take her daughter. “It was the worst decision of my life,” she says on video.
For the next few hours, recordings show the grieving mother ping-ponging between desolation and hysteria. Desperately, she demands to see her daughter, to say goodbye to Liam, to be allowed outside the hospital for a cigarette.
“I feel like I’m locked in a padded room and need fresh air,” she pleads.
Straw tells Officer Johnson she is dealing with effects from a recent miscarriage, and grief from losing both her parents in March 2021. At one point, she tells county detectives she does not know the identity of Liam’s father.
“I didn’t even know I was pregnant,” she says.
Several times, police offer to fetch a doctor or clergy member. Straw declines.
Throughout the ordeal, Johnson tries to calm Straw in compassionate tones. As the parent of a young child himself, he shares, he cannot imagine experiencing such pain. He tells Straw she is a good person, and calls Liam’s death a “freak accident.”
“I think you did the best you could in the circumstances you were given,” says the officer. Apologetic for adding to her sorrows, he assures Straw she soon will be reunited with her daughter, once authorities complete their “protocols.”
‘I FEEL LIKE I’M A PRISONER’
But under cross-examination by Denholtz, Johnson acknowledged he was aware that Liam’s death was suspicious. He was under orders to detain Straw and keep her separated from her daughter, even though Straw had not yet been arrested. The officer said he tried to make Straw comfortable.
“It’s just my nature to help someone go through what they’re going through,” testified Johnson, a six-year veteran of the force.
Yet determining the “who, what, when, where, why” of situations also is central to his job, he told Denholtz.
The public defender noted that Johnson’s bodycam video depicts him asking Straw about facts in the case: What time Liam went to bed, what position she found him in, what had he eaten that caused him to vomit.
Although Johnson is heard telling Straw his bodycam is rolling, Denholtz pressed him on the witness stand:
“You were with Krystal for three-and-a-half or four hours…at any point did you give her her Miranda warnings?”
“No…I did not give them to her,” Johnson answered.
Officer DeAnna Dietrich, a 24-year Morristown police veteran, relieved Johnson at the hospital. She also is heard on camera telling Straw that her bodycam is on. Deitrich’s tone is firm and direct.
When Straw, weeping, demands to know why she is not present while her daughter is being questioned, Dietrich assures her the little girl is safe.
But the officer adds: “We’re talking about the death of a 3-year-old child. There has to be a detailed investigation,” one that will comb through every aspect of Straw’s life.
“I feel like I’m a prisoner. I feel like I’m in a padded room, waiting for the prosecutor,” Straw tells Dietrich.
Judge Taylor is scheduled to review more police footage later this month.
One of the saddest news reports I have ever read. I pray for the poor child who lost his life and his sister now alone.
The mother and the “ boyfriend” are two lost souls.
Not sure jail will reform them.
Just too sad.