Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Christopher Lyman

Other Exonerations with Shaken Baby Syndrome
At around 2 a.m. on September 15, 2013, Christopher Lyman took his nephew, Johnathan Swan, to Geary County Hospital in Junction City, Kansas.

Lyman, who was 29 years old, was stationed at nearby Fort Riley, and he and his wife, Tammarisk Lyman, had been taking care of Johnathan, who was eight months old, since the end of August because the boy’s mother was having personal problems. Lyman said his son, Evan, who was then about 18 months old, had woken his parents in the middle of the night, and when Lyman went to check on Johnathan, he found the child limp and unresponsive. Lyman would later say he tried CPR and heard some gurgling in Johnathan’s lungs.

Dr. Graham Keats examined Johnathan at the hospital. He said that he shined a light in the boy’s eyes, and one of his pupils did not react, which indicated a brain injury or a problem with oxygen reaching the brain. Keats ordered a CT scan.

Dr. Adikuor Adjetey, a pediatrician, arrived at the hospital around 3:30 a.m. Johnathan was intubated a short while later. Adjetey said that Johnathan was unresponsive. She noticed a bruise on his forehead and right cheek and that his left eye would not respond to light. Adjetey ordered a second CT scan. The radiologist who reviewed the scan said there was a “diffuse injury” to the boy’s brain, including blood on the right side.

Adjetey would later testify that because of Johnathan’s age and inability to walk, she believed it was highly unlikely that he could cause such an injury on his own. She recommended that Johnathan be transferred to Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. Adjetey conferred with Keats, and the two doctors called the police to report possible abuse.

Officer David Sloan of the Junction City Police Department arrived at the hospital and talked with the doctors, then met with Lyman in the lobby. Lyman told Sloan about finding Johnathan earlier that morning. He said he thought the bruises might have happened when Johnathan and Evan were playing, because sometimes the boys collided. Lyman also said that two weeks earlier, he was carrying Johnathan when he fell down the stairs, but he didn’t think the boy had been injured because Lyman took the brunt of the fall.

After Johnathan was taken to Children’s Mercy, Tammarisk Lyman left on a business trip to California. That afternoon, Officer Cory Odell interviewed Lyman at the police station. Lyman told the officer how Johnathan had come to stay with him and his wife and about his own adjustment after two U.S. Army tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He said he felt sorry for Johnathan, whose father had abandoned him.

Eventually, Odell told Lyman that he needed to be “man enough” to admit that he physically and sexually abused Johnathan. He said the doctors in Kansas City “specialize in child abuse cases. The doctors, who are specifically trained and do this for a living, tell me this is child abuse. Somebody hurt this kid on purpose. That is the medical truth. Somebody hurt him and they hurt him so bad that he is fighting for his life. That is what happened.”

The interview was videotaped, and at one point, Odell left the room. Lyman got up and said, “My life is over.”

Johnathan died September 16. Lyman was charged with first-degree murder, child abuse, aggravated battery, and aggravated sodomy. Tammarisk Lyman was charged with second-degree murder and obstruction.

Linda Eckelman represented Christopher Lyman. Prior to the trial, Eckelman retained Dr. Thomas Young, the former medical examiner in Kansas City, Missouri, as an expert witness to rebut the state’s case that Johnathan died of Shaken Baby Syndrome.

But at a pre-trial hearing in Geary County District Court, the state challenged Young’s expertise. It wasn’t his medical training that was at issue, a prosecutor said, but rather his insistence that forensic science alone was an unreliable tool for determining the cause of death in complex cases. He once wrote: “One can be reasonably certain if witness accounts of the past are consistent or not consistent with physical evidence in the present, but one cannot reliably surmise past events from physical evidence unless there is any one plausible explanation for that evidence.”

The state argued that this methodology, which Young referred to as an “inferential test,” was not peer-reviewed or accepted in the medical community.

Although Judge Steven Hornbaker disqualified Young, calling his test “junk science,” he gave Eckelman as much time as needed to find another expert witness. She declined the offer, and the case went to trial in early May 2015.

The two doctors at Geary County Hospital testified about their observations when they examined Johnathan.

In addition, several doctors from Children’s Mercy also testified. Dr. Terra Frazier, a pediatrician at the hospital, testified that a CT scan showed blood inside Johnathan’s skull and a swelling in his brain. She said that the daily activities of an infant would not cause such severe injuries.

Frazier also took photographs of bruises on the boy’s eye, ears, hip and groin area, chest, and other parts of his body. In addition, she said she found tears around the skin of Johnathan’s anus, which she diagnosed as “blunt, external, force-penetrating trauma.”

Johnathan had numerous retinal hemorrhages, which Frazier said were associated with abusive head trauma and consistent with shaking. She said that any caregiver should have been able to look at him and tell something was wrong.

Dr. Lisa Lowe, a pediatric radiologist at Children’s Mercy, testified that Johnathan’s CT images showed bruising and swelling in the brain, mostly likely due to abuse or non-accidental trauma.

Lowe never examined Johnathan or viewed his medical history, but she said the window for this type of injury was between six hours and seven days prior to his arrival at the hospital. She said that injuries of this severity would have left Johnathan limp and unresponsive, unable to do normal activities.

Dr. Erik Mitchell performed the autopsy on Johnathan and said the boy died of head trauma. He testified that he found bruises on the boy’s body, and that there was nothing “that would be inconsistent with multiple applications of the force of a hand.”

“You’ve got the brain moving inside the skull. And there’s impact with the skull,” Mitchell said. “The brain doesn’t have the strength of the skull. So, with relatively lower energy, you can have damage to the brain where you don’t end up with damage to the skull.”

Mitchell was asked if it was possible to cause a brain injury by squeezing. He said yes. He was then asked if shaking could cause such an injury. Again, he said yes. (At a preliminary hearing, Mitchell had testified that he did not have an opinion about whether Johnathan was shaken.)

Police had searched Lyman’s cellphone. Detective William Arnold Jr., a certified forensic computer examiner, testified about selfies Lyman took with Johnathan on July 25, 2013. One photo appeared to show Lyman pressing down on Johnathan’s eyelids. A second photo, taken 30 minutes later, showed what appeared to be marks near Johnathan’s right eye and a bruise on his forehead.

Arnold also testified about a photo of Johnathan on the afternoon of September 14, approximately eight hours before he was brought to the emergency room. Arnold said he appeared alert and normal.

Separately, the state also introduced text messages between Tammarisk and her sister. In one text, from July 25, 2013, Tammarisk wrote that Johnathan was tired. “But it will be best if he is watched by other people. Since I feel you think he is abused over here. That is the last thing that happens. Yes, bruises around his waist are from Chris having no real feeling in his fingers. Sorry that you feel he isn’t cared for here. The worst thing that might happen is [our son tries] to play a little [rough]. But he is told no right away.”

Arnold also testified that on August 25, 2013, someone had used Lyman’s phone to search for “effects of shaken baby syndrome.”

Similarly, a forensic scientist with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation testified that Lyman’s computer history showed that approximately two weeks before Johnathan’s death, someone had used the computer to visit webpages on concussion and brain trauma, as well as websites on abusive head trauma and Shaken Baby Syndrome.

The police also found two sex toys—one glass, the other silicone—in the bedroom vanity at Lyman’s house. They obtained DNA swabs from both items and compared the genetic material to DNA samples from Lyman and Johnathan.

For the silicone item, testing reported the DNA profiles of at least three people. One was consistent with Lyman; the other consistent with a set of Johnathan’s genetic variants. A forensic scientist testified that the probability of a random person unrelated to Johnathan having that same genetic variant was about one in 8,621 individuals.

One end of the glass sex toy contained a mixture of at least two individuals. Lyman was reported to be consistent with one profile, and Johnathan was found to be consistent with the other.

Dean Stetler, an associate professor in molecular biosciences at the University of Kansas, testified for the defense that there could have been cross contamination in performing the DNA analysis on the items because a crib pad was processed alongside them. He also said there could have been cross-contamination of DNA on those toys while they were in the drawer.

Meggan Swan, Johnathan’s mother, testified that the Lymans babysat for the child for several months when they all lived in Ohio, prior to the Lymans moving to Kansas. She said that she called Tammarisk about bruising on Johnathan in July 2013. Swan said she could hear Lyman in the background, explaining that he might have tripped over Johnathan when he was in his car seat. Swan said she sometimes left her son in the seat outside the Lymans’ front door when she dropped him off at their house.

Swan testified that her son had a long history of serious health issues. He stopped breathing due to whooping cough when he was six weeks old and had to be resuscitated at the hospital. He stopped breathing a second time, when he was three months old, and spent a week in the hospital, part of the time on life support. He was diagnosed with respiratory syncytial virus. Swan said that her son was very close to her sister and Lyman. She said that “Dad” was the only word Johnathan knew, and he used it to refer to Lyman.

Jessica Lyman, Lyman’s sister, testified the Lymans sometimes babysat her son, who was the same age as Johnathan. She said he never came home with bruises. She said that Lyman was a loving father to Johnathan, a fussy child who vomited frequently and breathed differently.

Johnathan’s grandmother, known in court records as T.S., testified that she had seen the bruises on Johnathan’s waist in July 2013. Her daughter, Tammarisk Lyman, said they were caused by Lyman gripping the boy too tightly because he lacked feeling in his fingers.

Lyman did not testify. But the jury watched his police interview. Tammarisk Lyman had given a statement to police that on the night Johnathan was found unresponsive, she and her husband were together the entire time, except for five minutes in the early evening when she went to neighbor’s house. Because Tammarisk Lyman was facing her own charges, her attorney advised her not to testify, and her statement to police was introduced.

On May 14, 2015, the jury convicted Lyman of felony murder based on abuse of a child, abuse of a child by shaking, and aggravated battery. It acquitted him of aggravated sodomy. He was later sentenced to life in prison. Tammarisk Lyman’s charges were dismissed on September 9, 2015. She and Lyman later divorced.

In his direct appeal, Lyman said Judge Hornbaker had erred in barring Young’s testimony. He also said that the judge shouldn’t have allowed jurors to see the selfie photos of Lyman and Johnathan, because they were prejudicial. (The state had argued they were evidence of a pattern of abuse.)

The state and Lyman had entered into a pre-trial stipulation to allow extensive use of Johnathan’s medical records that included his previous health issues. After Judge Hornbaker ruled that Young could not testify as an expert witness, Lyman’s defense had no expert. Eckelman sought to introduce the records anyway, and the state objected, noting that the stipulation required an expert witness to use the records. Judge Hornbaker sustained the objection, which Richard Ney, Lyman’s appellate attorney, argued was an abuse of his discretion.

Separately, while Lyman’s appeal was pending, Chris Biggs, the prosecutor on the case, filed a disclosure of “potentially exculpatory evidence.” In the filing, Biggs said that he thought he saw a family matching the general appearance of Lyman, his wife, their son, and Johnathan, at the Walmart in Junction City on September 13, 2013. In Biggs’s recollection, the woman yanked the older child’s arm, and the other child, presumably Johnathan, did not look well.

The appeal was amended, with a claim that Biggs’s disclosure might be considered favorable to Lyman, because it could suggest that his wife was the one who harmed Johnathan. Judge Hornbaker denied the appeal, and the Kansas Supreme Court affirmed the conviction on January 10, 2020. It said Judge Hornbaker was well within his discretion to allow the jury to see the selfies, to bar the medical records, and to exclude Young from testifying as an expert witness, because his theories were not generally accepted in the medical community.

With regards to Biggs’s disclosure, the court ruled that the Lymans were unable to present any evidence that showed they were at the Walmart when Biggs was there, meaning that it was “pure speculation” that he saw the family.

On May 3, 2021, Ney filed a motion for a new trial, asserting that Eckelman had been ineffective in her representation by failing to present expert testimony to rebut the state’s case. The motion also said she failed to properly introduce Johnathan’s medical records and Lyman’s medical records, which would have documented the nerve damage to his hands that he received due to an IED injury while deployed overseas. In addition, the motion said she didn’t attempt to introduce Tammarisk Lyman’s statement to the police.

According to the motion, Eckelman suffered from dementia and other health issues. During the trial, she often lost her train of thought and accused Judge Hornbaker of being mad at her. At one point, she exclaimed, “God, I’m bored.”

Supporting the motion were reports from three doctors who reviewed Johnathan’s medical records.

Dr. Janet Ophoven, a pediatric forensic pathologist, wrote, “My review indicates that there was a combination of misdiagnosis and a rush to judgment regarding the child’s condition.” Ophoven said the findings that Johnathan’s retinal hemorrhaging, brain swelling, and brain bruising were signs of abuse is a “a controversial determination based on today’s medical science.”

She noted that there are 25 medical conditions that can cause retinal hemorrhaging.

Ophoven also said that the testimony about Johnathan’s anal lacerations was misleading. “Inexperienced eyes will misinterpret the natural dilation and findings in a brain-dead child as suspicious, but the autopsy findings typically allay such concerns.” Ophoven said that Mitchell’s autopsy didn’t report any anal lacerations.

“In recent years, even child abuse doctors agree that finding the triad of subdural blood, brain swelling, and retinal hemorrhage is insufficient to make the diagnosis of abusive head trauma,” Ophoven wrote. “As a result, the diagnosis remains purely subjective. In many cases the evidence speaks for itself. In this case, the diagnosis appears to have been made solely on the basis of the triad.”

Dr. Joseph Scheller, a neurologist, also reviewed the records. He said that Johnathan’s hematoma was very small and would not have caused dramatic brain swelling. He said the hematoma could have been caused by reperfusion, which happens when a person is resuscitated after they stop breathing. Jonathan’s autopsy revealed pneumonia, and Scheller wrote that the injuries the physicians diagnosed as abuse were more likely complications of a previous medical condition.

Dr. Ronald Uscinski, a neurosurgeon, said in his review that Johnathan’s medical history showed chronic respiratory problems, including apnea and airway obstruction. He also had a digestive disorder that led to frequent uncontrolled vomiting.

Prior to an evidentiary hearing, Ney had requested emails between the state and its expert witnesses at trial. Based on those files, the motion for new trial was amended to assert that prosecutors failed to disclose exculpatory evidence. One email, from Mitchell, said that Johnathan’s bruises could have been caused by a specific way that Lyman carried his nephew. A second email, from Frazier, said that Meggan Swan had told her that Johnathan had been bruised in the past because of Lyman’s “nerve-damaged hands.” A third email, also from Frazier, disparaged Young and indicated that the state planned to attack his credentials.

Eckelman had been diagnosed with moderate neurocognitive disorder and dementia in 2017. At an evidentiary hearing on September 2, 2022, a psychologist testified that it was likely that this condition was already present in 2015, when she represented Lyman.

On January 16, 2023, Judge Courtney Boehm of Geary County District Court granted Lyman a new trial, based in part on ineffective assistance of counsel.

“It is very obvious to this Court that Ms. Eckelman was in no shape to represent the Petitioner in his criminal case due to her mental state at that time,” Judge Boehm wrote. “Her medical issues affected her ability to competently represent the Petitioner at his criminal jury trial.”

The ruling said that Lyman’s experts all disagreed with Mitchell’s findings and testimony about Johnathan’s cause of death, which he had said was abusive head trauma. “Such evidence at the defendant's criminal trial would have severely undermined the State’s theory of the case,” Judge Boehm wrote. “The failure of Ms. Eckelman to secure a new expert for the defense as to the issue of cause of death was objectively unreasonable. By failing to secure a new expert, the prosecution’s expert testimony as to cause of death appeared uncontested.”

The ruling also said that the state’s failure to disclose the emails to Lyman harmed his ability to present a robust defense. Lyman was released from prison on February 24, 2023.

On July 12, 2023, Lyman’s 39th birthday, the state dismissed the charges. It gave no explanation.

Prior to the dismissal and unknown at the time to Lyman’s defense team, Geary County Attorney Kristal Blaisdell had hired Dr. Jane Turner to review the forensic evidence in the case. Turner issued her report on June 26, 2023. Turner wrote: “It is my opinion within a reasonable degree of medical certainty that the cause of Johnathan Swan's death is disseminated fungal infection and the manner of death is natural.”

Turner noted that the Midwest Transplant Network had obtained permission to harvest Johnathan’s organs. But it declined to accept most of the organs, and Turner said infection was a likely reason.

The review had harsh words for Mitchell’s autopsy. “He submitted a provisional report of his findings on or before October 10, 2013, concluding that the cause of death was head trauma,” Turner wrote. “It should be noted that Dr. Mitchell had not yet received the final results of the viral studies of the rectal and nasal swabs he had ordered. The autopsy examination shows no brain Injury; rather, the examination reveals the presence of a fungal infection of the brain as well as of the [inside of the mouth] and lungs. Dr. Mitchell misdiagnosed the microscopic hemorrhages of the brain as microscopic contusions. These lesions are in fact reperfusion hemorrhages, correlating with Johnathan's prolonged [lack of oxygen] and then resuscitation.” (A misdiagnosis by Mitchell also contributed to the wrongful conviction of Carrody Buchhorn. Earlier in his career, he had been forced to resign as medical examiner in Onondaga County, New York, after an investigative report by the district attorney accused him of mismanagement.)

Turner also said that the doctors mischaracterized the lesions on Johnathan’s skin as being lacerations. They were ulcers, she said, caused by his fungal infection.

On July 19, 2023, Lyman filed for a petition in Geary County District Court, seeking a certificate of innocence and $614,000 in state compensation for his wrongful conviction.

– Ken Otterbourg

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date: 8/25/2023
Last Updated: 8/25/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Child Abuse, Assault
Reported Crime Date:2013
Age at the date of reported crime:29
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No