This is the third of a three-part series discussing Shaken-Baby Syndrome.
Slower to Reform, as usual
Deborah Tuerkheimer, professor of law at DePaul University College of Law, asserts that the US’s federalist structure, absence of central authority for disseminating information, and very strong commitment to the finality of criminal judgements all have slowed reform in how it convicts people in Shaken-Baby Syndrome (SBS) cases. Irish barrister Alison Enright cites Tuerkheimer in her paper and continues her thoughts by adding the US still uses the triad of symptoms (retinal bleeding, brain swelling, and brain bleeding) to convict. Below are a few cases that have shown some progress in understanding that the presence of the triad of symptoms can and does occur for other reasons.
Audrey Edmunds’ Case
Audrey Edmunds was charged in 1995 in the US for shaking 7-month-old Natalie Beard. The State convicted her on the belief that the appearance of the triad of symptoms could have had no other cause other than the shaking of the child, which was possibly assisted by an impact. She filed for an appeal and petitioned for habeas corpus but both were denied.
Her petition in 2008 for a new trial was granted by the District 4 Court of Appeals, because new SBS research showed that the triad could develop from health conditions. Her conviction was overturned on July 11, 2008. The State dismissed all charges against Edmunds; she had already served almost 11 years of her 18 year sentence.
According to an article from Madison Magazine, witness Robert Huntington III performed the autopsy on Natalie. He originally testified that the triad of symptoms Natalie demonstrated proved she could have both been injured and become comatose while at Edmunds’ care.
However, three years after he testified at Edmunds’ trial, he treated a girl at his hospital who had been behaving similarly to how Natalie behaved the week before her death. Yet the trained medical professionals at the hospital did not detect brain injury in this girl for over 15 hours. To Huntington, this left open the likelihood that Natalie was injured long before she was under Edmunds’ care.
The Arizona Justice Project filed a motion in February for the Court to release 31-year-old Drayton Witt. He was convicted in 2000 for shaking his son who later died. He was able to file because now the legitimacy of the triad is being questioned. The medical expert was not confident in the triad as a means of conviction.
According to attorney Christine Rubacalva, the State looked like they were going to drop the case because of a lack of needed experts. So she asked the judge to dismiss Witt’s charges with prejudice so they could never be refiled against him again. He agreed to doing so during a telephone hearing, showing that some judges are accepting the changes in perception of the old science.
County Attorney Bill Montgomery, however, exemplifies Tuerkheimer’s accusation of the US being stuck on the finality of judgments. The Arizona Republic reported that his office’s statement said, “the decision to drop the case ‘has nothing to do with the weak scientific arguments put forth by special-interest groups.’ ” They quoted him saying in September, “Obviously, we believed it the first time around.”
Risk in Retrial
Illinois woman Pamela Jacobazzi is a former Bartlett day care provider who in 1999 was convicted of shaking 2-year-old Matthew Czapski. The Downstate Illinois Innocence Project has asked the State to grant her clemency. She was convicted because she was Matthew’s caretaker when the child’s triad of head injuries appeared. However, Matthew’s full medical details were never brought into the trial.
Matthew had preexisting conditions of persistent fevers and characteristics of sickle-cell anemia which could have explained the presence of the triad of symptoms. Some doctors say the triad can arise from sickle-cell anemia. The prosecutors in this case say they will contradict Jacobazzi’s defense with their own expert witnesses.
But this pursuit of justice comes with a risk. If Jacobazzi is found guilty in a retrial, she could be sentenced again and stay in prison even longer. Such a factor deters those found guilty to pursue their own justice. They may find it more worthwhile to just wait out their current sentences.
Systematic Misdiagnoses by Respected Hospital
Michelle and Dave Weidner took their son to OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, Illinois, where a doctor claimed to have detected a skull fracture after performing a CAT scan. The couple obtained a second opinion from a different hospital who identified no skull fracture present, attributing the misunderstanding to their son’s movement during the CAT scan.
They, regardless, underwent a painful investigation by the Department of Family and Children Services and the Pediatric Resources Center. Michelle has become an unofficial spokesperson for reforming how organizations like these accuse people of abuse. She recently spoke at a press conference alongside two other mothers whose accusations resulted from the same pediatrician at OSF St. Francis. In a detailed article from the Pekin Times, Michelle was quoted saying:
“I highly respect the individuals involved with prosecuting those who hurt kids. But the very best way to properly identify, investigate and prosecute child abuse is to have a system that swiftly and effectively identifies and weeds out false allegations. They must quit contracting with and relying upon so-called child abuse experts. Child abuse doctors are simply general pediatricians. They do not have any advanced training in forensics, radiology, orthopedics or neurology.
However, Dr. Robert W. Block believes that the Academy of American Pediatrics does a thorough investigation of these cases, as originally included in part 1 of this series.
Proposed Proper Practices for Future Cases
Enright proposes that:
“The criminal-justice system in the United States therefore might, as a priority, follow the lead of the United Kingdom and seek to review past convictions while also formulating a coherent approach to be followed in future cases to ensure that defendants are no longer convicted on the basis of the triad alone.”
She acknowledges that critics will arise as they do with every pursuit of true justice that we make and as the science is still evolving.