Shaken-Baby Syndrome: The United Kingdom’s Reforms (P. 2)

Alejandra de la Fuente — November 20, 2012 @ 1:33 PM — Comments (0)

This is the second of a three-part series discussing Shaken-Baby Syndrome.

Process of Reevaluation

The first modification to make the assessment of shaken baby syndrome (SBS) cases sound more credible was Meadow’s Rule. Developed by Sir Roy Meadow, British pediatrician, it said that two or more childhood deaths in the same family should arouse suspicion of foul play rather than sudden infant death syndrome. So basically it judged with suspicion by numbers.

One death was a tragedy; two caused suspicion of the caretaker; three deaths meant the caretaker probably murdered them and was likely guilty. It convicted so many people that its trust was highly elevated; it seemed indelible. Meadow’s rule affected a fourfold increase in child abuse convictions from 1978 to 1988.

However it also, like the triad of symptoms (retinal bleeding, brain swelling, and brain bleeding), determined a conviction with a rule and not a consideration of the case. Solicitor Sally Clark appealed and was found innocent of the murder of her two children. This caused judicial reviews of the Meadow’s Rule. Much of her innocence was founded upon the fact that a pathologist failed to release post-mortem exams he had performed on the children which revealed one of them died of natural causes. The faulty assumptions of the Meadow’s Rule stole the attention of the jury and the prosecutors.

Angela Cannings was convicted at the Winchester Crown Court (UK) for the death of her two infants. She and the defense disputed claims that she smothered the two babies. She was their sole caretaker, so they proposed sudden infant death syndrome as an explanation and provided numerous experts of their own to prove their claim. The Court of Appeal issued this final statement on the verdict:

“[If] the outcome of the trial depends exclusively or almost exclusively on a serious disagreement between distinguished and reputable experts, it will often be unwise, and therefore unsafe, to proceed.”

Attorney General Goldsmith called for the review of every infant death case since 1994 (297 and 88 involving SBS) due to the outcome of Cannings’ case. This review began in July 2005 with three appeals cases that had already been initiated.

The Three Appeals (UK)

All three were heard together to keep the focus on the new medical evidence present in each shaken baby case and whether or not it proved each person was or was not guilty.

Lorraine Harris’ was the only conviction that was overturned. The symptoms and cause of death of her son matched the triad of symptoms, so the prosecution found the case to be clear cut. But the new scientific evidence presented by the Court of Appeals showed that his injuries did not take much force to cause and that they were the result of a bleeding disorder.

Raymond Rock was determined to have sufficient evidence of unlawful killing. However, his conviction for murder could not stand alone on the triad of symptoms. So his conviction was reduced to manslaughter. The Court altered his sentence to seven years, six of which he’d already served. He was able to get out of jail soon after.

In the third review, Alan Cherry’s conviction for manslaughter was upheld.

The Court also rejected the argument that the triad of symptoms could occur without a baby being shaken. Lord Justice Gage, Mr. Justice Gross, and Mr. Justice McFarlane after these three appeals all agreed that the triad of symptoms was unsafe for determining convictions. In each of these cases, the prosecution presented experts that argued the triad of symptoms could only have resulted from some measure of violence.

This panel of three judges determined that convictions based on this triad of symptoms were not presumably always the result of violence but could just as well be the result of the child falling or having a health problem resulting from a traumatic birth or a health disorder. The panel, however, still maintained that some sort of external harm must trigger these symptoms to arise even if they’re present because of the child’s health problem.

Active Discussion of Reforms

The UK’s Royal College of Pathologists gathered in 2009. They agreed that the triad of symptoms makes defendants appear clearly guilty but stressed that future trials must consider other evidence to appropriately determine the actual guilt of the defendant.

In 2011, the Crown Prosecution Service issued a document of legal guidance on shaken-baby cases. Its main stipulation is that “appropriate supporting evidence (which in certain circumstances can be found in the absence of certain factors) should feature in the case analysis.”

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