“Shaken Baby Syndrome” Continues to be Challenged in Court

According to www.omaha.com, an Iowa judge recently found a new father not guilty of shaking and injuring his three-week-old son, ruling that the infant’s brain and bone injuries could have resulted from other medical conditions. 

The baby had been taken to the emergency room by the defendant’s wife.  Doctors diagnosed the baby with a subdural hematoma (which can be caused when blood vessels rupture as a result of trauma), possible rib fractures, and a broken clavicle.  The defendant was charged with child abuse after a doctor at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics concluded that the injures resulted from the baby having been shaken.  The defendant had cared for the baby earlier in the day.

However, a pediatric radiologist from Stanford University testified that other medical ailments, including rickets, thrombosis, and blood clotting could have caused the baby’s injuries.  None of those causes were apparently investigated by the hospital staff.  The judge credited the testimony of the Stanford expert and said he had “some serious doubt whether a crime was even committed…”  The judge also criticized the University hospital, accusing the staff of failing to use evidence-based medicine in the case.

There has been steady criticism regarding the so-called science of shaken baby syndrome by judges, doctors, and attorneys in recent years.  Because babies cannot communicate how they were injured, doctors must diagnose based solely on their injuries.  However, there are other illnesses that cause the same symptoms as violent shaking, and some studies have suggested that shaking a baby will not generate enough force to seriously injure a baby’s brain.  Studies also suggest that the symptoms can be caused by a traumatic birth.

Massachusetts has a history of prosecuting high-profile shaken baby cases.  In 1997, Middlesex County prosecutors charged 19-year-old British au pair Louise Woodward with murdering an eight-month-old baby in her care who had suffered a fractured skull and subdural hematoma.  Woodward denied shaking or otherwise abusing the baby but a jury convicted her of second-degree murder.  The judge initially sentenced her to life in prison, with the possibility of parole after 15 years.  However, the judge thereafter reduced the murder conviction to involuntary manslaughter, concluding that a conviction for murder constituted a “miscarriage of justice.”  The judge sentenced Woodward to time served (279 days).  The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the trial judge’s decision to reduce the conviction and the sentence.

The Middlesex District Attorney’s Office is currently prosecuting an Irish nanny who is accused of killing a baby in Cambridge last year.  However, according to a recent Boston Globe article, the defendant’s attorneys are challenging the conclusions of one of the Commonwealth’s star witnesses, Dr. Alice Newton, who determined that the baby was the victim of shaken baby syndrome.  According to the Globe, Dr. Newton had made a similar conclusion in another Middlesex County baby killing case, only to have the state medical examiner conclude there was no way to tell if that baby was murdered.  The Middlesex District Attorney subsequently dismissed that case.  The Irish nanny’s case is scheduled to begin in April.

With more and more research on the topic, it looks as though “shaken baby syndrome” may be nothing more than junk science.