Fathers Caught in the Jaws of Injustice

The crush of the stories is getting to me, both the number of them and the cruelty.

Justice Richard L. Buchter in New York drove the point home last week during the sentencing of Hang Bin Li, the immigrant father convicted last month of manslaughter in the death of his infant daughter Annie. According to the New York Times coverage, Buchter called Li’s treatment of his daughter “shocking, sickening, sadistic” before imposing a sentence of 5 to 15 years.

The New York Post reported that Li tried to tell the judge he was innocent, saying, “I didn’t know how or why this happened. I wrote what my statements were to the police, three times of what happened.”

But the judge cut him off. “These are the same lies the jury rejected,” he said.

No one is listening.

Jason Curtis with his son Jackson -photo courtesy the Curtis family

Jason Curtis with his son Jackson
-photo courtesy the Curtis family

And the tragedies keep coming. Jason Curtis in Iowa, for example, was convicted last month of first-degree murder in the death of his son Jackson, 5 months old when he quit breathing during a nap.

Curtis’s story was simple:  He was at home with the baby while the child’s mother was at work. He thought Jackson was asleep, but when he checked on him mid-morning, he found the boy unresponsive. He immediately dialed 911.

Doctors found no bruises, abrasions, red marks, or fractures, but bleeding and swelling inside the boy’s skull convinced them he had been assaulted—more than once.

Like many children diagnosed with shaking injuries, Jackson had a complex medical history. He had been prescribed a series of anti-biotics and anti-fungal medications, and he had been hospitalized at the age of three months for failure to thrive.  On the day he quit breathing, he was being treated for a respiratory infection. Autopsy revealed a large chronic subdural hematoma and multiple small rebleeds.

“Every time they gave him a new medication, he got sicker,” says Roni Hays, Curtis’s aunt, who also points out that during ten doctor visits over Jackson’s five months of life, not a single medical record noted evidence of abuse.

threesleepEven one of the prosecution experts testified that nothing in the child’s brain could “unequivocally” be considered evidence of trauma. Daily trial coverage in the local newspaper, no longer on line, included the testimony of defense experts Dr. Waney Squier and Dr. Peter Stephens, who disputed the abuse diagnosis.

Prosecutor Matt Wilber told reporters after the verdict that his office had targeted Curtis from the beginning, because of a “prior child abuse conviction.” Patty Parham, another of Curtis’s aunts, told me that a couple of years ago both Curtis and the children’s mother had taken plea bargains on the advice of their public defenders, when their four-month-old daughter was found to have a fractured arm and clavicle. Curtis pled guilty to child endangerment and the girl was returned to her parents. (If you assume all plea bargains equal confessions, please see this posting.)

Jackson Curtis

Jackson Curtis

“Jason would never hurt a child,” Parham insists. “If you ever saw Jason with his kids you’d know it. His children are everything to him.” Friends and relatives commenting on his petition site concur. A former supervisor of Curtis’s at an adult care facility wrote that Jason “always gave dignity and respect to our residents.”

In Ohio, meanwhile, another father has been convicted of shaking his  son to death, in a murky case full of pre-judgment and miscommunication. Brandon Wilson reported that some weeks before his son quit breathing, the 10-month-old had fallen down several stairs, and then later had fallen from a shopping cart at a local store. The parents had taken him to an urgent care facility because of continued vomiting, but that was still weeks before his medical crisis. In a taped police interview after the child’s death, detectives insisted that something must have happened just before the boy collapsed, and that’s when Wilson “acknowledged that he had shaken the baby.”

The police heard a confession to shaking, but his words as reported sound to me more like an attempt to revive a non-responsive infant. The Portsmouth Daily Times coverage reported this impression from the tape:

Earlier in the interview when Wilson began to acknowledge that he had shaken the baby somewhat, Wilson said – “But I was not shaking that baby to hurt the baby or anything like that. I was just concerned about—you know what I mean? It was just—he was limp. It seemed like he was dead already when he was laying there.”

Later in the interview, he reiterated – “Well, I don’t really know how—I was not shaking him, like, really forcefully, but I was just trying to get him to wake up.”

Experts for the prosecution testified that children do not die from short falls like those Wilson had reported.

Annie Li, courtesy the Li family

Annie Li, courtesy the Li family

But I can’t help protesting:  What makes the doctors so sure these parents are lying? Their families seem to believe them.

Hangbin Li’s wife, the mother of his deceased daughter, asked the judge for leniency, calling Hangbin a good father and saying, “I was there that day, I saw everything. He didn’t intentionally hurt Annie.”

I had gotten to know Jason Curtis a little bit, through email, while he was realizing the state was really going to prosecute him for the death of his son. He was polite, thoughtful, and not a bit pushy. I was relieved when I heard that Dr. Squier was taking on his case—and I was shocked when I heard he’d been convicted of first-degree murder.  When his family members described him to me as patient and gentle, it only confirmed my impression.

I wish the child-abuse experts would stop and listen to the parents and caregivers, and to the people who know them.  I am not saying that children are never abused, or that shaking a baby is not dangerous. Indeed, I’m sure shaking a baby can be fatal.

Jackson Curtis

Jackson Curtis

But I’ve logged my time in the medical library, and in the courthouse, and I know that the pattern of cranial bleeding and swelling that now defines Abusive Head Injury does not prove abuse, even though a number of respected professionals seem to sincerely believe that it does. (See, for example, this article by intensivist Dr. Steven Gabaeff, which comes with a downloadable collection of original sources.) How many more cases like that of Tammy Fourman or Patti Kwan do we need before doctors slow down and listen to the evidence that a number of physiological processes can result in this cluster, not only violent assault?

I’ve seen two important changes in the arena over the past 15 years.

First, physicians and attorneys from outside the child-protection community have been drawn in, as they’ve encountered troubling accusations and convictions in their own practices. The result is a new wave of published research that questions the model of infant head injury that’s been winning for 30 years in the courtroom.

Second, the affected families are finding each other over the internet. Just now they are staggering under the weight of their individual burdens, but together they could become a voice loud enough to be heard.

copyright 2013, Sue Luttner

If you are not familiar with the debate surrounding shaken baby syndrome and abusive head trauma in general, please see the home page of this web site.

25 Comments

Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, Hang Bin Li, Hangbin Li, parents accused, SBS, shaken baby syndrome

25 responses to “Fathers Caught in the Jaws of Injustice

  1. Cathy Smith

    This stuff is nothing short of heart-breaking, Sue. I really don’t know how you keep with it. Which doesn’t mean I don’t admire your efforts, because truly I do. You are so admirable in this crusade . . . but it is so difficult stuff to read! (and I know I’m not the first to tell you this) Cathy Smith

    • You’re right, Cathy: It’s a tough arena. Thank you for the support.

    • If you think Sue has a big job (and she does – and I love her for all the support she has given) try being the Mother of one who has spent 15 years in prison for this and is innocent. Try being the person who is accused. It is a nightmare. We have been told by numerous people – including guards inside the prison and I quote “Your son doesn’t belong here” and we continue to battle the ‘system’. We keep going because of the support we get from people like you and Sue. Nancy O’Geary-Smith

  2. I am absolutely sure that all that Sue has said is correct, because WE are fighting a shaken baby case, as well. I LIVE with the parents and know them very well. They DID NOT SHAKE that baby! Yet they were presumed guilty and still, after 16 months, don’t have their baby back! CPS writes that “we are concerned that the parents continue to deny allegations.” On that basis ALONE, they state that there is too high a risk to return the child to his parents. But the parents now live with 3 other adults, one not being a family member, ME. I KNOW the family is good, does no violence, no raised voices, no drugs, not on welfare. I KNOW the extended family and how they ALL relate to each other and how they ALL totally ADORE babies. They would never hurt them in a million years.

    Furthermore, I KNOW that the medical evidence for there being a medical cause for the baby’s symptoms is overwhelming, but the “expert” from the other side completely ignored NUMEROUS medical facts IN THE RECORD to reach her conclusion that because there was bleeding on the brain and retinal hemorrhages, the child necessarily had to have been shaken. B.S.! There was a MEMBRANE around the hematoma, which means that it was bleeding SLOWLY over time. The retinal hemorrhages did not appear until 6 days AFTER surgery to drain the hematoma. The child’s blood indicators and chest X-rays and weight/height chart indicated infection and problems. Yet the “judge” concluded that the parents must have shaken their baby.

    What I hate most about this is that the judges are ill informed, and that I KNOW the truth, but I am not allowed to talk. And the “lawyers” we have hired so far do not fight. They just yawn and go with the program. I recommend that you do NOT get a lawyer who is always in that court. Rather, get a fighter from outside the local system, so you can REALLY fight. The lawyers who are there every day cannot afford to ruffle the feathers of the established pattern of thinking without feeling repercussions, so they are mild. We didn’t know at first how to choose a lawyer. We were fooled! But it is terrifying to buck the system when your child is being held for ransom.

    We have court again this Wednesday. I PRAY that they’ll get their child back.

    I am grateful, Sue, that you are doing this. Let’s all come together and make LOTS of NOISE! Come to the EBMSI conference in British Columbia. Look it up. If you are an innocent parent, contact us! Let’s get together!

    • Good idea, lyjj. The EMBSI conference is a valuable opportunity for accused families and the professionals who work with them to get the information they need and connect with people already in the arena. It doesn’t look like the schedule is posted for the August, 2013 conference, but you can go to the site at http://evidencebasedmedicineandsocialinvestigation.org/home/.

    • Joseph Lafromboise

      My son was picked up friday and is being charged with 2nd degree murder. My son and wife face a daunting task to prove their innocence. Community is enraged and the FBI is running roughshod on their rights to further their careers. My son is 21 with two daughters. 4 and 3. His son was 11 months old. My son has never showed any signs of abusing his children. We are very scared he will be railroaded into prison. There is no reprimand for law officials that go overboard in trying to find guilt instead of remaining unbiased.

  3. When are they going to start believing – the stories are the same over and over again. Why can’t the medical profession and the legal profession get it right? AND why can’t they admit when they have made a mistake? It sickens me. Nancy O’Geary-Smith, Mother of Sean O’Geary – individual wrongfully accused.

  4. I think this should be titled, “Fathers caught in the jaws of INJUSTICE”. It’s so disturbing I couldn’t read it all in one sitting. Well done, Sue.

  5. April Stewart

    Our system is way out of control when it comes to abuse of children they make the innocent suffer and the guilty ones let go. This is so unfair to all the babies that are still being abused because they are ripped out of the wrong hands and given to the ones doing the abusing or in all these cases putting people behind bars for something they didnt do. The other thing is that is so wrong is the system goes by your name if you dont have the name or name that family members have been in trouble and your automatically a target which is so unfair just because part of your family is not good doesnt mean you are like them. Stop Judging people and start getting the true facts and all the facts before taking it upon to just say ok your guilty cause we dont like you and want you behind bars total nonsense. I’m sorry for Jason and his family that they are one of these families that the justice system has done this to and I hope they fight to the bitter end for whats right along with the rest of the parties that have been accused of such a thing

  6. Michael

    The biggest issue isn’t that the science isn’t out there but that it isn’t being acknowledged or at least not being incorporated into the hospital assessments and training at times, no differential diagnosis is made often times and you only see what you want to when you are only looking at one side of the road. We were always taught to look both ways before we cross the road and we should look at both sides of the road before stripping families apart.

  7. Patti Parham

    We are only in the beginning stages of dealing with this nightmare. Jackson was a very sick little boy and we thought that once the jury saw the evidence Jason would be free to grieve his son’s death. The “justice” system sickens me, the things that are allowed to be stated and misstated by the prosecution are horrifying! My thoughts are with all families going through this and hope we can help make a difference.

    • Heather L

      The picture above of Jason holding Jackson stopped me dead. He could have been holding my daughter. His head is swelled and looks identical and I mean identical to my daughter’s when she suffered cardiac arrest. I’d be interested in knowing what his head circumferences were at all his doctors visits. Were there underlying conditions?

  8. Pingback: Accused Father Rejects Plea, Insists He’s Innocent | On SBS

  9. Kathy Lewis

    Patti, I know you and I don’t really know each other that well But here goes, I do know Jason and Mandy very well and I KNOW in my gut that Jason Is innocent, But right to the point here, If He was RICH, WEALTHY, or whatever, I feel He would NOT have been prosecuted by any means, I am sorry to put it this way but when you look at Jackson You can tell He was not a healthy child, and I do believe they had it out for Jason right from the start. I also worked with Jason and I know He could never harm anyone, Least of all his own child!!! Please forgive my bluntness and I don’t mean to offend anyone by saying Jackson did not look like a normal healthy child. Just my opinion and the courts would never listen to me either if I said anything because to them I am a nobody. I am poor also so I feel that the justice system only care if a person is wealthy, and to hell with all of us “POOR” people. I do care and THE justice system is not OUR justice system, I think the are for the wealthy and nothing more. I have returned to my faith and I pray for His Justice to help Jason, I pray for his strength to hold Jason up and keep him strong. I have (I think) signed the petition for Jason’s release and for true justice to be served….

    • Kathy, I agree with you completely! Jackson was a very sick baby, who did not receive the medical care he needed!. We are still fighting to get Jason a new trial. The sorrow of losing a child, and then to be charged with hurting him is unbelievable. We also grieve for his daughters, who have to live with this. You know the pain of losing a son and that never goes away. Thank you for your support! Patti

  10. Kathy well said and I have really only got to know Jason through letters but I am like you i know in my heart he is innocent and he seems like a caring soul and i do know Patti and know she knows the truth!!!! And someday soon when he is released i will get to know him and look forward to that day!!!

  11. I have known Jason for most of his life we went to school together and were good friends and like any set of friends we had our ups and downs I know his family as well and I think the portrait that the prosecution tried to set was utter crap Jason for all he is doesn’t have a mean bone in his body I don’t think he could harm someone even IF he was being attacked. Let alone a small child I watched Jason crawl up into a park spring cart much to small for him just to make my little daughter giggle. I truly hope that there is a way to over turn this conviction and get Jason back to his family.

    • thank you so much! he so needs to know that people believe in him and openly support him!!

      • No need for thanks Patti the Truth is the Truth Jason was about the gentlest guy out there and for people to even think that he could harm a child is the height of stupidity and its unfortunate I believe in truth the courts had already made their decision well before the trial and just went through the motions for the sake of making it seem like they were doing justice it is exactly what they did to me and my girls accused me of horrid things would not let me near my children and in the end I have my parental rights but since now the girls had been turned against me they would not make the girls live with me because they didn’t want to convicted of nothing but lost my children therapeutic foster care provider in the State of Missouri but not allowed to speak to my kids by the state of Iowa. Iowa has no such thing as Justice. I think you should all seek the appeal court outside of Iowa you won’t get justice there.

  12. Tiffany

    I agree an appeals court outside of Iowa needs to be sought, but I’m not sure if that’s even possible.

  13. Pam Meade

    Sue,
    My name is Pam Meade, I am Brandon Wilson’s mom. I would love to talk to you regarding his case. We are not rich and we didn’t stand a chance. Our story has not been told and we don’t know where to turn. My son is no angel. He does have a past and struggled with drug addiction, but that is a far cry from murder. He loved that boy, as we all did. Please contact me and I would love to hear any advice or just get our story heard. Our family has been traumatized and demonized through the media. Thank you for listening… all of you.
    - A grieving mother.

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