A recent editorial in Reason Online discusses Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS). Over the past twenty-plus years, the SBS diagnosis has supported homicide verdicts in cases involving otherwise unexplained infant deaths. In many of these cases, the only evidence to establish a defendant’s guilt has been the testimony of a physician who opined that the baby’s death was caused by shaking so violent it was the equivalent of dropping the child from a 2-story window, or being hit by a car going 35 miles per hour. In such cases, even with no direct evidence the defendant had ever harmed the child (much less violently shaken it), juries have convicted loving caretakers of murder. The testimony was based upon a finding of 3 separate physical symptoms–bleeding at the back of the eye, bleeding in the protective area of the brain, and brain swelling—which doctors and other child protective believed could only have been caused by violent shaking. But now, science is slowly realizing the terrible truth that, in fact, that conclusion is simply not true. Modern research (using lifelike dolls) has shown that vigorous human shaking produces bleeding similar to that of only a 2-foot to 3-foot fall. Furthermore, researchers were unable to reproduce symptoms with the severity of those typically seen in SBS death by shaking the dolls. In other words, what had been accepted as medical doctrine simply does not hold up.
This tide of events is having an impact in cases of innocence. Last January, a Wisconsin appeals court granted a new trial to Audrey Edmunds, who was convicted of murdering her infant following expert testimony that the baby died as a result of SBS. All charges were withdrawn by the government six months later, citing the “interests of justice for the victims” and the toll of a potential retrial on the family. Ms. Edmunds had served 11 years in prison.
This month’s Washington University Law Review features an article in which Professor Teurkheimer, of DePaul University Law, argues that due to the lack of sound medical research the courts should perform a review of SBS cases.
Discover Magazine featured an article last year, ‘Does Shaken Baby Syndrome Really Exist?’ in which both sides of scientific debate are discussed. Ronald Uscinski, a clinical assistant professor of neurosurgery at Georgetown Hospital and George Washington University, said in this article, “this is not to say that child abuse does not exist. I have witnessed such cases and have been deeply and painfully moved by the plight of innocents who have been injured or even killed….And yet I am no less moved by the plight of the wrongfully accused (and even convicted), their families and their loved ones. This is particularly so when such accusations are based on impure science, a flawed legal foundation, and completely inadequate or inappropriate public policy.”
The concern is that there are likely many innocent people currently in prison based on convictions that relied upon a faulty diagnosis. Scientific testing/research has cast increasingly significant doubt on the SBS diagnosis. The time has come for our legal system to revisit the appropriateness of its application, and the convictions that have resulted from it.