Pullitzer Price-winner Maurice Possley has a lengthy article on Shaken Baby Syndrome today on TheCrimeReport.org.
At the time the case was unremarkable—one of thousands of successful prosecutions during the past 30 years of parents and other care-givers who have been found guilty of charges ranging from manslaughter to murder, based on findings of what is known as the triad—retinal hemorrhage, bleeding in the brain and brain swelling. Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS) is one of the few instances in the criminal justice system where the diagnosis is the basis for prosecution.
That last sentence is the most remarkable: the diagnosis itself is the basis for prosecution. It is remarkable because, as we know, scientists are fundamentally like any other human being: they are fallible. Oftentimes, like in fingerprint cases, or serology cases, a scientist will provide testimony that is corroborated by other circumstantial or physical factors, and the holism of the evidence against a defendant will lead to a conviction. Oftentimes the scientist’s evidence is, as it were, the last straw, but the prosecution would maintain a fairly strong case without their testimony.
On the other hand, these SBS cases are remarkable because it seems like a scientist’s testimony was enough by itself to prosecute, and even win a conviction.
The article opens by telling the story of Audrey Edmunds, a Wisconsin woman who had her SBS conviction overturned last year.
Edmunds was granted a new trial by a judge who ruled that the testimony “shows that there has been a shift in mainstream medical opinion.” In effect, the scientific foundation of the syndrome had been undermined to the extent that a new jury would probably have a reasonable doubt about Edmunds’ guilt…
A soon-to-be-published analysis of shaken baby cases and recent developments in the medical community by University of Maine School of Law professor Deborah Tuerkheimer presents persuasive evidence and raises troubling questions about whether many of these convictions were of innocent people who were found guilty on the basis of faulty science. The analysis is scheduled to be published in September by Washington University Law Review.
As science changes, the criminal justice system often struggles to keep up. SBS is one such example, and because of the “shift in mainstream medical opinion,” these cases ought to come under heightened scrutiny and intense review.