This week, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reversed the conviction of a man found guilty of shaking a baby and causing serious injuries. It is another blow to the “science” of shaken baby syndrome that has been used for years by prosecutors to lock up caretakers who may very well be innocent. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Epps.
The defendant was convicted of assault and battery on a child causing substantial bodily injury and sentenced to 7-10 years in state prison. He was babysitting his girlfriend’s two-year-old daughter (Veronica) and four-year-old daughter (Delilah) on an October morning in 2004. According to the defendant, Veronica fell twice as he was babysitting. She first fell off of a three-foot-high stool (hitting her head and causing a bruise) and then fell a second time as the defendant was in another room playing a video game. Following the second fall, Veronica’s eyes rolled in the back of her head and her body was stiff as if experiencing a seizure. An ambulance arrived and transported Veronica to Lawrence General Hospital. Medical staff noted she had a black eye and a red mark across her chest. She also had red marks on the inside of her knees. Doctors intubated Veronica before med-flighting her to Children’s Hospital in Boston where she underwent brain surgery to relieve swelling and drain excess blood. While she survived, Veronica is paralyzed on one side of her body and cannot walk. She is also significantly developmentally delayed.
The Commonwealth called as a witness a pediatrician (who is also a child abuse specialist) who examined Veronica. The pediatrician testified Veronica’s injuries were consistent with shaken baby syndrome, as they could not have been caused by the normal activities of a toddler (even a toddler who falls down more than usual). At trial, the defense attorney did not call an expert to rebut the pediatrician’s conclusion that Veronica had been violently shaken. After his conviction, the defendant filed a motion for a new trial and argued his trial attorney had been ineffective for failing to retain his own expert to suggest to the jury that Veronica’s injuries could have been caused by two accidental falls. At the motion for a new trial hearing, the defendant’s new attorney called a doctor to testify that the theory behind shaken baby syndrome has not been scientifically proven. The doctor testified that it was impossible to tell whether Veronica had been injured by falling down or by being abused by the defendant. Finally, the doctor testified that there is no consensus in the scientific community about the merits of shaken baby syndrome. The trial judge denied the defendant’s motion for a new trial and he appealed.
The Supreme Judicial Court reversed the defendant’s conviction and ruled the defendant is entitled to a new trial. The Court noted that at the time of the defendant’s trial, there was significant research suggesting an accidental short fall can cause injuries consistent with those associated with shaken baby syndrome. Since the trial, additional medical studies have been published that further support the conclusion that short accidental falls can cause significant head injuries in children. The Court concluded that because the defendant did not enjoy the assistance of an expert at his trial to explain to the jury that shaken baby syndrome just might be junk science, there is a substantial risk that the conviction might have constituted a miscarriage of justice. Accordingly, he is entitled to a new trial.
Cases involving shaken baby syndrome have been getting considerable attention recently, with the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office being forced to dismiss two recent high-profile cases and the Supreme Judicial Court recently reversing another conviction. The legal wrangling over this issue is likely to continue until there is consensus in the medical community about whether or not shaken baby syndrome is supported by science.