Massachusetts General Hospital Doctor at Center of Two Controversial Shaken Baby Prosecutions

The Boston Globe today reported on the troubling history of a Massachusetts General pediatrician who recently concluded that two babies were shaken to death, only to have the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office later dismiss the cases. 

Dr. Alice Newton is an experienced pediatrician and for seven years headed the child protection unit at Children’s Hospital in Boston.  She also works as a “child-abuse specialist” while practicing pediatric medicine at Mass General and Children’s.  She has been involved recently in two high-profile cases that have caused her professional judgment to be questioned.  The cases involved allegations that babies had been shaken to death by their caretakers.

“Shaken Baby Syndrome” is junk science.  It is a theory that if three symptoms are present – swelling of the brain, bleeding in the back of the eyes, and bleeding on the surface of the brain – doctors can conclude that a baby has been shaken.  While prosecutors regularly rely on these diagnoses to convict people of murder, doctors have discovered that the symptoms can be caused by diseases and accidents.  There have also been studies suggesting that shaking a baby cannot cause these symptoms because the shaking will not generate enough force. Nevertheless, Massachusetts has a long and troubling history with shaken baby convictions, including the notorious Louise Woodward case.  Woodward was a British au pair who was convicted by a Middlesex County jury of murdering a baby boy in her care in the late-1990s.  The trial judge overturned the murder conviction and instead found Woodward guilty of manslaughter, thereby reducing her life sentence to 279 days in jail.  The Supreme Judicial Court upheld the trial judge’s decision.

Within the past couple of years, Newton has twice concluded that babies had died as the result of being shaken, causing Middlesex County prosecutors to charge their caretakers with murder.  Ultimately, both cases ended up being dismissed when the Medical Examiner’s Office did not support Newton’s diagnoses.  In one case, a Malden father was accused of shaking his infant son to death in 2010.  After the father was arrested and locked up in jail pending his trial, the Medical Examiner’s Office determined it could not say the death was a homicide.  Instead, the baby could have died as a result of a rare genetic order that causes blood vessels to easily rupture.  In a second case, an Irish nanny was accused of killing a baby in her care and was jailed for two years after Newton opined that the baby had died after being violently shaken.  It turned out the baby had prior medical problems that could have caused her death.

Medical experts are supposed to independently consider the evidence, apply scientific principles, and draw conclusions based on the evidence and the science.  Today’s Globe article makes clear that Newton is not an independent scientist.  She views herself as an advocate for the dead or injured child.  While she insists she is “not into this to accuse people,” Newton’s other comments to the Globe suggest otherwise.  She said her work sometimes “feels like good versus evil,” and she is motivated to obtain justice for children and families.  Most disturbingly, Newton claims to “become the voice of the child.”  Advocating for a child or a family in the judicial system is not Newton’s job.  She is responsible for determining the cause of death or injuries based on science.  At least twice in the last few years, defendants have spent considerable time in jail based on Newton’s conclusions that were later unsupported by the Medical Examiner’s Office.

The Middlesex District Attorney’s Office, which has been dealing with its own set of scandals recently, should stop working with Newton, as her medical diagnoses have too often proven to be unreliable.