This is the first of a three-part series discussing Shaken-Baby Syndrome. Subscribe with our RSS feed or find us on Facebook or Twitter to catch the next two.
Student fellows working under Prof. Alec Klein with The Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern University are assessing why the United States criminal justice system’s treatment of shaken-baby syndrome (SBS) cases has a dangerous potential of leading to wrongful convictions. The team has begun fact-checking almost 1,400 SBS-related cases in the US in which the convicted person has continually maintained their innocence—noble work for which they are already receiving some resistance. They are also compiling a public database for the additional cases to avoid any further backlog.
Medical experts and criminal justice professionals disagree over the science behind SBS, because it is relatively new. Irish barrister Alison Enright is a visiting scholar at Medill. She is comparing the United Kingdom’s assessment of shaken baby syndrome with that of the US.
In the UK, the three symptoms that suggest SBS—retinal bleeding, brain swelling, and brain bleeding—are not enough to prove attempted murder or assault by the caretaker. The US courts have been basing their convictions of shaken-baby cases on the existence of this evidence.
A press release from Medill quotes Enright, saying:
“Despite the growing international recognition of the dangers and flaws inherent in prosecutions based on the triad of injuries, the United States continues to adhere to the classic shaken-baby syndrome prosecution paradigm, raising a real possibility that miscarriages of justice continue to occur and innocent people are being wrongfully convicted.”
Why Is The Triad of Symptoms So Convincing?
Linking these three symptoms to one possible cause has enabled prosecutors to use emotion to easily sway the jury. During the trial of nanny Louise Woodward, prosecutor Gerard Leone told a fact-void story of what he thought happened, describing in bone-chilling detail what he thinks Woodward did to the child. Arizona man Drayton Witt’s conviction for shaking his son was recently tossed. He said during the trial that he was likened to a gorilla and that he would have been able to see the child’s face as he shook him.
The Medill team has taken interest in Dr. Norman Guthkelch’s altered view of SBS. His research (“Infantile Subdural Hematoma and its Relationship to Whiplash Injuries” from the British Medical Journal) assisted in the establishment of SBS. However, Dr. Guthkelch now feels researchers that built off of his findings have taken them too far:
“In reviewing a number of cases where the alleged assailant has continued to proclaim his/her innocence, I have been struck by the high proportion of these in which there was a significant history of previous illness, and of abnormalities of structure and function of the nervous system. Yet these matters were hardly, if at all, considered in the medical reports.”
Guthkelch doesn’t like the term shaken-baby syndrome because it sounds definite. Prescribing the presence of these three symptoms as nothing other than violence towards an infant has caused courts to be closed-minded about the possibility that these same symptoms can show up for other reasons. Jurors and judges have often not looked for “damage to the neck and cervical spinal cord or column” to complement the existence of the triad of symptoms. According to Enright, experts suggest that additional injuries to the spinal cord would prove violence.
Guthkelch thinks that using the triad of symptoms is a strange use of science to convict, because it uses scientific evidence to make suspects guilty by association. It then uses the same evidence to “to prove (the perpetrator’s) intent.” All too often prosecutors make up hypothetical and overly dramatic stories during the trial to emotionally sway the jury.
Conflicting Viewpoints in the Medical Field
Dr. Robert W. Block, the president of the Academy of American Pediatrics and board-certified child abuse pediatrician serving on an advisory committee for the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome, is in the position to have quite a say in the US’s assessment of the topic. A Daily Herald article quotes him saying:
“(Researchers challenging the validity of a SBS diagnosis) ignore that our clinical diagnosis is not made in isolation. It’s made after a great deal of conferencing with law enforcement and child welfare workers, family interviews, and after putting together timelines and considering all other diseases…My opinion is that the other side is not representing a scientific argument.”
However as history has taught us, case must be considered individually. In part 2 of this series, I will mention a case in which Attorney General Lord Goldsmith of the UK called for the review of 297 infant death cases. The UK’s progression in their treatment of SBS cases in comparison to that of the US is what Enright seeks to point out in her research.
The US compared to the UK
The US and UK have generally agreed that the triad of symptoms existed in each SBS case. By making this connection, they shrouded the existence of the symptoms in the righteous, untouchable glow brought on by the label of “science,” like they have for many other archaic scientific determinants that led to false convictions—fingerprints, lie detectors, hair follicle examinations, footprint comparisons, and even poor observation and assumption in blood testings.
We now, especially of late, know that all of these and SBS are barely science. Both countries have taken it to the extreme and convicted solely based upon the existence of this triad of evidence.