Governor Jerry Brown’s decision earlier this month to commute the sentence of Shirley Ree Smith has given shaken baby syndrome another run in the news, where the coverage shows a new awareness of the changing landscape.
The day after the announcement, for example, NPR reporter Joe Shapiro said on a segment of All Things Considered, ”now doctors and scientists have a better understanding of other causes . . . that can mimic the signs of child abuse.”
In an excellent piece on ProPublica, reporter A.C. Thompson found room in the second paragraph to mention the new, conflicting analyses of the medical evidence released a few days before the clemency announcement. Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley had asked for expert reviews of the evidence in Smith’s case, and he received three quite different reports, two of them raising questions about the conviction.
The ProPublica web site has also posted a fascinating document, the letter from District Attorney Steve Cooley to Governor Jerry Brown, sent in January while Brown was considering the request to commute Smith’s sentence. The main point of the letter is not Smith’s guilt or innocence, but, as the letter puts it, “the current state of the science that forms the foundation for Abusive Head Trauma (AHT, which was formerly, colloquially referred to as Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS)).” Cooley cites informational materials from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a journal article, and a legal decision to support his point that “AHT is widely accepted by both the medical and legal communities as a diagnosis and cause of death.”
Which strikes me as irrelevant to both Shirley Smith’s case and the debate surrounding shaken baby syndrome. The question at hand is is: Does the evidence prove that Etzel Glass died from a shaking assault? The larger question is: Does intracranial injury prove abuse without other signs of violence?
Presumably the letter to Governor Brown was drafted in response to the statement in support of clemency submitted by Ms. Smith’s attorneys in December. Although that document does quote from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s minority opinion in the Supreme Court decision, the bulk of the document addresses the evidence in Smith’s case. I have to conclude that the main goal of Mr. Cooley’s letter was to head off any reference by Governor Brown to the debate surrounding a diagnosis of shaking.
Brown’s commutation order did not in fact reference the wider debate, although it did quote Justice Bader’s minority opinion in the Supreme Court decision that “there has very likely been a miscarriage of justice in this case.”
Los Angeles Times reporter Carol J. Williams quoted from both Cooley’s letter and the new, conflicting reviews of the evidence in her follow-up story that ran the day after the governor’s announcement. That treatment also reveals a little bit more about Smith, who found herself homeless in Los Angeles for a time after her release from prison, because she was not allowed to leave the state and therefore could not rejoin her daughter and grandchildren in Illinois.
The day of the announcement, Emily Bazelon at Slate wrote a quick but thorough piece concluding that Smith’s case could give other innocent people in prison “a shot at getting their lives back.” Bazelon reiterated her position from the winter 2011 article in The New York Times Magazine, that “the science underlying shaken-baby prosecutions is shifting, with critics arguing that alternative explanations are not adequately explored. But a new concensus—legal or scientific—hasn’t yet emerged from the bitter fight, in some cases, over the diagnosis.”
In the on-line ABA Journal coverage, reporter Martha Neil wrote, “Smith’s case is one of a number of convictions in which evidence once thought to be determinative concerning shaken-baby deaths is now being questioned.” The two reader comments that made it past the moderator have both been in support of the commutation.
Shirley Smith is now living with her daughter in Minnesota, where CBS News in Minneapolis ran a touching interview that did not address the medical issues, and a CBS/Fox station prepared a feature segment that was even briefer. Neither posting on the internet seems to have received reader comments.
The Associated Press syndicated a story, picked up at least by USA Today, that did not refer to the larger debate but did cite a number of statements in Smith’s favor.
SFGate in San Francisco posted the Chronicle’s coverage, which evoked both positive and negative reactions from readers. The piece was short, but reporter Bob Egelko summarized the situation surrounding both Smith’s case and the larger question in one accurate paragraph:
Recently, however, a pathologist in the coroner’s office reviewed the case and found little evidence of traumatic injury. Some researchers have also questioned the validity of shaken-baby syndrome, a term doctors have used for 40 years to describe often-fatal head injuries suffered by small children with no outward signs of abuse.
A site called The Inquisitr pulled together an article of its own from a number of sources. For whatever reason, maybe the unfortunate headline, reader comments on that site have been 100 percent negative.
Blogger Kate Jane posted a short piece asking for reader comments, which hasn’t received much response.
I doubt I’ve found them all. Please let us know if you come across something interesting I’ve missed. Thanks.