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.
Last week my dear friend was tried and wrongfully convicted of manslaughter of a one year old girl. Stephanie was a licensed, reputable daycare provider for 18 years. In 2008 she took little Maria into her home for less than a full day less than week after Maria had received multiple vaccinations. After leaving her house, the grandmother and mother took Maria to the ER because she was “lethargic.” After a CT scan and no other testing the doctors said that Maria suffered from Shaken Baby Syndrome. Because Stephanie was the last person Maria was with before supposedly displaying symptoms, she was promptly arrested and accused of aggravated child abuse. One week later, Maria died. Stephanie’s charges then went to first degree murder. Investigators never even looked into anyone or anything else. There was no real evidence at trial and medical experts were conflicting in their testimony (as expected). I know Stephanie and she did not do this. As a result, this 40 year old woman has lost everything; her children have lost her; her husband has lost her; her family has lost her. Our foundation (The Stephanie Foundation) is now trying to raise money to pay for her appeal. It is a real travesty of justice when people like Stephanie (daycare providers, nannies, parents, grandparents) are being charged and convicted of essentially being the last person known to be with a child before they require medical care. There are so many other things that can cause the symptoms associated with Shaken Baby Syndrome.
I simply want to say I am just all new to blogging and absolutely loved your web page. Almost certainly I’m want to bookmark your website . You amazingly have amazing article content. Cheers for sharing with us your web page.
AIRING TONIGHT IN THE UK
Each year, around 250 parents and carers are accused of killing or injuring children by shaking them or inflicting some other form of head injury. But an acrimonious scientific debate over the theory behind so-called Shaken Baby Syndrome, has turned toxic among the expert witnesses whose evidence is so critical in determining guilt or innocence.
Andrew Hosken examines claims of a campaign of dirty tricks to discredit those who question the orthodoxy and hears calls from one of the country’s leading pathologists for an inquiry.
Producer Paul Grant.
Reading carefully, the article is much more limited than the headline.
When she was intereviewed last wee on NPR’s Talk of the Nation show, Bazelon agreed that there is such a thing as Shaken Baby Syndrome (a distinction ignored by the headline writers).
The issue her story sought to tell is more limited: whether the evidence in any particular case is sufficient to demonstrate who inflicted the injury.
The story did gloss over some interesting numbers. She said there are estimated to be 1200-1400 cases of inflicted head injury (AHT/SBS) a year. She also said there are 200 cases a year. Unless she meant by that to say that there are 200 trials per year, that’s a pretty disappointing criminal justice statistic.
And the story completely ignored the success of prevention programs that educate new parents in reducing the number of inflicted injuries.