New Findings May Exonerate Many in Shaken Baby Cases

June 24th, 2009

A recent article by Maurice Possley brings to light new evidence about shaken baby-related murder convictions. Over the last thirty years, thousands of parents and caretakers have been charged after the death of a child in his or her care was attributed to Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS). A diagnosis of SBS is based on a triad of evidence: retinal hemorhage, bleeding in the brain, and brain swelling. Individuals are generally only charged after the diagnosis of SBS is made. However, new scientific findings show that SBS may not always be a result of violent shaking, but that a short fall may also produce the same symptoms.

Audrey Edmunds of Wisconsin, a day care provider, was charged in 1995 with murder, after a 7-month old in her care died, and prosecuters alleged that she had shaken the baby to death. Last year, with the help of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, Edmunds was granted a new trial and released. One of the experts who had testified at her trial came forward to say that he was no longer sure Edmunds had harmed the child, and that the damage could have taken place hours earlier than originally believed. An article in the Washington University Law Review by Deborah Tuerkheimer to be published in September seeks to examine recent research into SBS which could free thousands of people who were imprisoned with the help of faulty science.

The case of Louise Woodward, the 19 year old au pair who was charged with second degree manslaughter after she was accused of shaking to death the child in her care, illustrates the point. Experts for the prosecution alleged that the child was shaken violently and his head was hit against a hard surface. Experts for the defense testified that the boy’s injuries could have been sustained days earlier. The most recent scientific findings show that there is no certainty in the medical community that SBS is caused by violent trauma. Indeed, symptoms from the triad of SBS symptoms may be found in children before they are taken home from the hospital for the first time.

In light of the most recent medical research, many of those convicted in SBS cases could receive new trials, and it seems that the burden of proof may be moving in their favor.

Maurice Possley’s article on Mistaken diagnoses of Shaken Baby Syndrome may have sent thousands of innocent people to prison, according to a new study

Washington University Law Review abstract: The Next Innocence Project: Shaken Baby Syndrome and the Criminal Courts