Posted on February 13, 2011 · Posted in Brain Injury

 Have dozens of people been wrongly convicted in shaken-baby syndrome cases? 

That’s the issue that The New York Times Magazine tackled Feb. 6, in much detail.

A good portion of the story is about Trudy Ruenda, who was convicted in a shaken-baby case in Fairfax County, Va., involving baby Noah Whitmer. In April 2009 Ruenda was running a day care center, and called “911” when Noah stopped breathing and lost consciousness.

Hospital doctors did a CT on Noah, and found he had subdural hemorrhaging, or bleeding between the skull and the brain, and retinal hemorrhaging, or bleeding in the back of his eyes. His brain was also swollen, and he went into a coma.

The physicians told Noah’s parents, Erin and Michael Whitmer, that they believed he had been violently shaken. Noah sustained irreparable brain damage. Ruenda maintained her innocence, but was criminally charged and convicted.

The Times reported that there are about 200 shaken-baby prosecutions a year, and that in 50 percent to 75 percent of those cases, the only medical evidence if the trio of injuriies that Noah had. Again, those were subdural and retinal hemorrhages and brain swelling.

But there is now medical evidence that sometimes a baby can sustain brain damage, such as a stroke, yet remain conscious and lucid for some time. When they finally succomb to their injuries, they could be in the care of an innocent babysitter or nanny, who is then accused of shaking them.

In 2008 the Wisconsin Court of Appeals reviewed a shaken-baby case and wrote that there was “fierce disagreement” amlng doctors on the issue, according to The Times.

The paper also quoted Keith Findley, an attorney with the Wisconsin Innocence Project, who maintained that people shouldn’t be prosecuted in shaken-baby cases based on medical evidence without any other proof of abuse.

The story cites a case in Wisconsin, that of Audrey Edmunds, who in 1993 was criminally charged when a 7-month-old she was caring for at her home near Madison, Wis., died. Edmunds denied any wrongdoing, but was convicted and went to jail. 

Edmunds sought a new trial 10 years later. One panel of doctors agreed that the evidence had supported her guilt for shaken-baby syndrome, and another panel of doctors disagreed. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals in Janaury 2008 granted Edmunds a new trial. But prosecutors dropped the charges againt her half a year later.         

The Times story raises some troubling issues about the validity of shaken-baby syndrome, and is worth reading.

About the Author

Attorney Gordon S. Johnson, Jr.
Past Chair Traumatic Brain Injury Litigation Group, American Association of Justice :: 800-992-9447