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New York Times Feature Calls Shaken-Baby Convictions into Question

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Last Sunday, the New York Times Magazine’s cover story explored how diagnoses of shaken-baby syndrome are now being called into question, and the legal implications for those who have been convicted of injuring or killing children through shaking.

For years, if a child showed three signs: brain swelling, retinal hemorrhaging, and subdural hemorrhaging (bleeding in the space between the skull and the brain), he was often diagnosed with shaken-baby syndrome, and experts believed that the injury was inflicted immediately before the child showed symptoms. Now, though, the reality is far less clear. It’s been found that brain injuries can occur hours or even days before true symptoms emerge, preceded only by fussiness or lethargy until the bleeding reaches a crisis point. It’s therefore much more difficult to pinpoint the timing of a head injury than previously believed, which raises questions about those who’ve been convicted of shaking babies because the telltale symptoms occurred while the babies were under their care. In addition, brain scans can be ambiguous and hard to read, and medical experts at trial can offer extremely divergent opinions on what a scan can mean.

The article states:

A small but growing number of doctors warn that there can be alternate explanations — infections or bleeding disorders, for example — for the triad of symptoms associated with shaken-baby syndrome. Across the country, the group of lawyers that has succeeded in exonerating hundreds of people based on DNA evidence is now mounting 20 to 25 appeals of shaken-baby convictions. “No one wants child abuse,” says Keith Findley, a lawyer for the Wisconsin Innocence Project. “But we should not be prosecuting and convicting people in shaken-baby cases right now, based on the triad of symptoms, without other evidence of abuse. If the medical community can’t agree about all the conflicting data and research, how is a jury supposed to reach a conclusion that’s beyond a reasonable doubt?”

The Times article discusses several cases where new medical opinions called a shaken-baby diagnosis and conviction of a caregiver into question. After five-month-old Noah Whitmer stopped breathing while in the care of daycare provider Trudy Rueda, Rueda was convicted of shaking the baby and sentenced to ten and a half years in prison. At trial, mothers of children that Rueda had cared for testified on her behalf, saying that they could not believe that Rueda would do such a thing. Medical experts at trial testified both that Noah’s injuries were caused by abuse and that his brain hemorrhage was a “rebleed” from an injury sustained at birth.

Other shaken-baby cases are being reexamined. Dinesh Kumar, a Toronto man who was convicted of shaking his son to death 19 years ago, was acquitted last month. The evidence in the case was found to no longer be scientifically valid as the pathologist who testified was later found to have given false information and overstated his expertise in a number of other cases.

And on Wednesday, Feburary 9, the Maricopa County, AZ Attorney’s Office ordered a new trial for Armando Castillo, who was convicted in 1998 of second-degree murder and child abuse of his then-girlfriend’s baby. The child became seriously ill while under Castillo’s care and died from the same type of brain hemorrhage usually diagnosed as shaken-baby syndrome, but experts later found that the injuries the baby sustained were from several days and possibly weeks before his collapse. Castillo has been in prison since 1998, but after learning in 2007 about the growing debate over shaken-baby syndrome, worked with the Arizona Justice Project to reopen his case. His new trial is set to begin within the next sixty days.

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