Category Archives: AHT

Shaking: “A False and Flawed Premise”

Kristian Aspelin and his son Johan

Kristian and Johan Aspelin

February opened with a pair of important and complementary postings, a bold academic statement signed by 34 physicians, attorneys, and child-protection professionals with “deep concerns” about shaken baby theory in the courtroom, and a beautifully written examination of the Johan Aspelin case that illustrates why the experts are so concerned.

Published in the British journal Argument & Critique, the Open Letter on Shaken Baby in the Courts: A False and Flawed Premise argues that a diagnosis of shaking “risks blurring the line between diagnosis and verdict,” and that “SBS has never been proved as anything more than an hypothesis.” Citing the dearth of scientific research underlying the theory, the authors write:

Noticeably, the requirement for scientifically based evidence is far more rigorous in medical negligence cases than in the family or criminal courts where believing something to be true appears to have achieved sufficient evidential value to sway the determinations of the court.

The letter also notes that the justice system has tended to suppress arguments about shaken baby syndrome:

One of the consequences has been the vilification of experts prepared to advance competing theories and the suppression of sensible debate.

Dr. Waney Squier

Dr. Waney Squier

One example of such vilification is unfolding now in England, where pediatric neuropathologist Dr. Waney Squier is facing a challenge to her license triggered by complaints to the General Medical Council (GMC), reportedly from the Metropolitan Police, that her courtroom testimony exceeds her area of expertise and ignores the opinions of her peers. Dr. Squier has been testifying on behalf of accused parents for about the past decade, since her own research, clinical experience, and reading of the literature convinced her that the prevailing model of shaken baby syndrome is flawed.

My favorite report about Dr. Squier’s GMC hearings, which opened in the fall and continue intermittently, is a legal-training company’s blog posting that features praise from readers for her intellectual honesty in the face of peer pressure. A general practitioner offered this striking parallel with an historical report to the GMC:

Surely the Met investigating a Dr who happens not to agree with the consensus — and holds an expert view — is a little like the tobacco companies (circa 1960s) reporting Sir Richard Doll to GMC for his novel theory that tobacco caused lung cancer.

WhatRealllyHappenedJohan copyIn the U.S., meanwhile, an in-depth treatment of the Johan Aspelin case published last week on Medium by reporter Elizabeth Weil also reveals striking new facts, like the botching of Johan’s initial intubation at San Francisco General, which caused the complete collapse of one lung and serious damage to the other. And that Johan received several times the recommended dosages of two different sedatives, which, Weil writes, “left him essentially paralyzed and unable to communicate distress as air was pumped into his compromised lungs.” The article notes:

Nowhere in the police investigation transcripts does it suggest that doctors considered Johan had a brain injury and retinal hemorrhaging due to low blood-oxygen levels and high carbon dioxide pressure, problems that may result from faulty intubation.

Johan’s mother Jennie Aspelin learned about the error and resulting crisis only because she’d contacted the organ-donation agency to find out why there had been no recipient reported for Johan’s lungs, as there had been for his other organs. Even then she received only the oblique message that it was “a matter of function,” enough to send her on a focused search for the full medical records.


Johan Aspelin

In November of 2010, Johan’s father Kristian Aspelin told emergency responders that he had fallen in the kitchen while holding 3-month-old Johan, but child-abuse expert Dr. Chris Stewart rejected that explanation and told police that the boy had been violently shaken to death.

In December of 2012, the county dropped murder charges against Kristian, after defense attorney Stuart Hanlon turned over a collection of exonerating reports from outside experts as well as a carefully assembled medical time line that included the hospital’s mistakes. By that time, the family had lived apart for two years, when they’d  lost their baby and needed each other more than ever. They’d sold their house and taken on a staggering debt to cover legal bills, and they’re not slated for any compensation from the state.

Dr. Mark Feingold

Dr. Mark Feingold

But the people who train child abuse physicians continue to teach that children seldom if ever suffer serious injury in short falls, and that only abuse causes severe retinal hemorrhages. In a January, 2015 lecture titled “Is There a ‘Shaken Baby Syndrome’?,” for example, which earns the medical viewer one continuing education credit, child abuse pediatrician Dr. Mark Feingold reported that hypoxia does not cause “macroscopic subdurals” and that children do not suffer serious injury in short falls:

A lot of our opponents say, “Well, the child died. That’s too bad. But it was a short fall, just like Mom said. He fell from Mom’s arms.” The evidence shows that children who fall more than 20 feet can die, but children who fall less than 3 feet almost never die, and when they do, it’s a different kind of accident. It’s a playground accident. It’s an older child. They die of a large subdural that causes lots of pressure. And the RH if present are not the kind we see in abuse cases (emphasis added). But nonetheless, different versions of “I was carrying the baby and I tripped and fell” are often offered.

Slipping and falling with the baby is the explanation Kristian Aspelin offered, like countless parents and caretakers before him and countless more to come, while pediatricians are being trained to reject that story, and to dismiss the hypoxia that frequently accompanies head injury as a source of compounding symptoms.

The retinal hemorrhages in Johan’s eyes were widespread and multi-layered, the kind that child abuse pediatricians insist do not result from short falls or lack of oxygen to the brain. So were the hemorrhages in the eyes of the toddler in the care of René Bailey, who said the little girl had fallen off a chair—Bailey’s murder conviction was vacated in December. Doctors also pointed to extensive retinal hemorrhages when diagnosing shaking injuries in the cases of exonerated babysitters Jennifer Del Prete and Audrey Edmunds and exonerated father Drayton Witt, and in an exasperating case local to me in which paramedics pulled a rubber band from the child’s throat during resuscitation and the only physical evidence of abuse was the triad. It seems to me that the world now offers quite a few examples of extensive retinal hemorrhages from plausible, non-abusive accidents and medical conditions.

RHKelloggWhen I started researching shaken baby theory more than 15 years ago, I routinely read in trial transcripts that doctors considered the presence of retinal hemorrhages a sure sign of child abuse, but since then the situation has grown more complicated. When researchers started looking systematically, they rediscovered that retinal hemorrhages have a long list of non-traumatic causes, including diabetes, anemia, bleeding disorders, increased intracranial pressure, increased intrathoracic pressure, and certain types of infections. A startling one quarter of neonates born spontaneously arrive with retinal hemorrhages, more in deliveries that involve instruments. In light of this new understanding, child abuse experts now recognize other causes of retinal hemorrhages but insist that most of them result in only a few small hemorrhages near the optic nerve, not in widespread, multi-layer hemorrhages, which they continue to interpret as evidence of whiplash shaking.

I don’t know how we will move forward, but I welcome the growing chorus of voices in the journals, in the press, and in the courtroom, who demonstrate through their work and their testimony that the Open Letter on Shaken Baby is representing the situation correctly in its message to the courts:

In short, we would inform members of the judiciary and legal profession in those countries which utilise the SBS construct, that it does not have the undivided support of the relevant professional community, an essential consideration in the assessment of expert testimony.

The letter was edited by Argument & Critique’s managing editor Dr. Lynne Wrennall, whose doctorate is for work in child welfare, from a draft prepared by solicitor Bill Bache and veteran child social worker Charles Pragnell. The signers include 16 physicians, a handful of scientists, and a variety of social work professionals, from both academia and the field.

For the observations of Phil Locke at the Wrongful Convictions Blog, see his posting about the Open Letter.

The film company Mighty Myt is making a film about Johan Aspelin’s case, In a Moment: The Johan Aspelin Story.

copyright 2015, Sue Luttner

If you are not familiar with the debate about shaken baby syndrome, please see the home page of this blog site.


Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, Falsely accused, parents accused, SBS, shaken baby syndrome

Sweden Searches for the Truth

babySilhouetteA recent decision from Sweden’s  Supreme Court is changing the landscape for Swedish citizens fighting misguided accusations of infant shaking.

An English translation of the decision has been posted by Riksförbundet För Familjers Rättigheter (RFFR, translated as the National Association for Families’ Rights), a union of families and their supporters created in 2013 so its members could approach the government as a coalition rather than as individuals. The ruling, from October of 2014, sets aside the June 2012 conviction of  a father for presumably shaking one of his twin sons in 2009, with the explanation:

It can be concluded that, in general terms, the scientific evidence for the diagnosis of violent shaking has turned out to be uncertain.

As in so many of these cases, the infant collapsed at home and was found at the hospital to have both fresh and aging subdural bleeding, as well as retinal hemorrhages and brain swelling. The doctors concluded that the boy was the victim of abusive head trauma, and the prosecution seems to have offered a range of possibilities for how the injuries were actually inflicted. From the court’s summary of the prosecution’s position:

On 14 May 2009 in his home in Kungsbacka, MM did assault his son OM by shaking him vigorously or directing blows at his head, banging his head against something or using other violence against his head… In the alternate, MM did by shaking O vigorously or directing blows at his head, banging his head against something or using other violence against his head cause O’s injuries through carelessness.

In  reviewing the father’s appeal, the Supreme Court listened to testimony from two physicians, Prof. Anders Eriksson, a forensics expert and an advisor to the National Board of Health and Welfare, and Prof. Peter Aspelin, a radiologist and a former chair of the Scientific Advisory Council of the Swedish Council on Health Technology Assessment (SBU). Both physicians told the court that the SBU, concerned about the reliability of a shaking diagnosis, has now launched a systetwoDucksmatic study of the literature regarding infant shaking, an effort that is expected to take at least two years.

In October of 2013, Dr. Eriksson had told the Legal Advisory Council that “the probability that O’s symptoms had arisen in some other way than through the intentional actions of an adult person is very small.” When he later testified in front of the Supreme Court, however, Dr. Eriksson had changed his position. In the words of the translated decision:

[Dr. Eriksson] based the conclusion in the opinion to the Legal Advisory Council on the fact that O presented three symptoms (a triad) that, if they occur at the same time, have been held, according to the traditional view, to strongly indicate that there has been violent shaking if it is not the case that the child has been subjected to some other form of “high-energy violence” such as a traffic accident or a fall from a high height. The symptoms included in the triad are  haemorrhaging under the dura mater, haemorrhaging in the fundus of the eyes and swelling of the brain. However, this diagnosed model has been criticized. The point of the criticism is that the symptoms given can have other causes . . .  So it is not possible to say today that the occurrence of the triad means that violent shaking has been proved. Instead, it must be concluded that we do not know; we are in a quagmire.

And Dr. Aspelin told the court:

The controversy is not about whether it is harmful to shake a child violently. The issue under discussion is with what scientific certainty it can be established how various injuries found in a child have arisen. The claim that the occurrence of the triad is strong evidence that violent shaking has occurred goes back to the late 1960s; however, the medical evidence for it was relatively thin. But the claim became generally accepted and grew into medical truth over several decades, even though the situation in terms of evidence did not change. It is known that a very large share of fundus haemorrhages are not linked to violence and arise in another way. Nor has it been shown that nerve fibers are torn, and that the brain therefore begins to swell, in connection with violent shaking. It can also be asked whether violent shaking can occur without neck injuries arising… To sum up, it can be said that the scientific support for the diagnosis of violent shaking is uncertain.

The twins had been born by scheduled Caesarean section, apparently without complications. When less than a month old, however, both boys were hospitalized for two weeks with respiratory infections. At that time, medical workers noted that O had a a couple of bruises on one cheek and bruising on the front of his lower legs.

Six weeks later, the parents brought O to the child healthcare center with a report that he had been “vomiting torrents” for two straight days.  Apparently he was treated and releasescalesd, but that afternoon the boy began screaming during a diaper change, and then suddenly fell silent. The child’s mother heard both the screaming and the sudden silence, but did not see what happened. The father reported that when the child fell quiet, he became unconscious and “loose-limbed” and started to “roll the whites of his eyes.” The father said he was “gripped with panic” and that he shook the boy gently in an attempt to resuscitate. The Supreme Court reviewed a video recording of the father’s statement and noted, “The shakes appear fairly cautious and by no means match the description of shaking violence.” Looking at the bigger picture, the court concluded:

It has not emerged that the facts in this particular case are such that it can be established… that O’s injuries were caused by violent shaking or other violence on the part of MM. On the contrary, certain facts, including the facts that O had previously had RS virus and that there were signs of older haemorrhaging under the dura mater, indicate that there is another explanation for the symptoms that O had.

The RFFR web site, which posted both the original decision and the English translation, also offers links to Swedish news coverage of the topic as well as an English-language commentary by pediatric neuropathologist Dr. Waney Squier in Britain and television news coverage out of Dallas, Texas, of a family accused of assault when their daughter’s genetic disorder was misdiagnosed as abuse.

A doctor in Sweden reports that since the Supreme Court’s decision, two convicted fathers have been freed on appeal after years in prison and a third has won in court and is now home with his family.

If you are not familiar with the debate surrounding shaken baby syndrome, please see the home page of this site.


Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, shaken baby syndrome

Decisions Address Timing, Coercion


Not from this case, merely an example of subdural bleeding

Two different judges in two separate cases have looked carefully at the facts in front of them and found the kind of fundamental problems that plague shaken baby prosecutions.

In October, District Court Judge John Telleen in Scott County, Iowa, addressed an issue I’ve been wanting someone in authority to notice for years now, the implications of a pre-existing subdural hematoma.  Judge Telleen’s oral decision declaring an accused father not guilty included this observation:

All of the State’s evidence or the vast majority of it related to the 12 hours before admission on November 5. Frankly, I believe it’s clear that nothing happened on or about November 4 or November 5 that could possibly have caused a subacute subdural hematoma that had been in existence from anywhere from three days to ten days prior to that.

Like Judge Matthew Kennelly following the Del Prete hearings, Judge Telleen was left doubting both shaking theory and its application to the case at hand:

[I]t is my understanding from the testimony that I found credible that there are no scientific studies that support or document that shaking causes brain hematoma or brain bleeds…

[F]rankly I have some serious doubt whether a crime was even committed here much less that the defendant did it.

The judge noted that the infant, only three weeks old when clear neurological symptoms emerged, had been sick since birth, and he chided the child abuse pediatrician for making the “default diagnosis” of abuse without doing a full work-up to eliminate metabolic or bleeding disorders, or even a vitamin D deficiency, as the child had healing fractures that could possibly, but not definitively, be dated back to birth

The state’s ophthalmologist had apparently testified that he couldn’t be certain the child was abused, and conceded that a sharp rise in intracranial pressure (ICP) could account for the retinal hemorrhages. Judge Telleen said:

Dr. L was a credible witness. He was a straight shooter. He said he couldn’t place it beyond 51 percent, his opinion that he thought it was caused by non-accidental trauma. However, he freely acknowledged as an honest witness that increased intracranial pressure can cause retinal hemorrhage, he couldn’t rule that out.

There seems to have been no press coverage of the innocent verdict, so there was never any public correction to the initial news stories, which quoted an affidavit that the father had “engaged in three or more acts of child endangerment, including at least one act that resulted in serious injury.”

December update: The local paper has now covered the decision, at

Defense attorney Kent Simmons said his client turned down a plea agreement that would have avoided jail time, because he did not want to admit to doing something he didn’t do.  “I told my client he was a very brave man,” Simmons said. “And Judge Telleen is an honest, bright, and fair jurist.”

judgeAngelLopezAnd I’ve just learned about a decision this past spring in Oregon, where Appeals Court Judge Angel Lopez affirmed a trial court’s decision barring a confession from the courtroom, concluding that the father’s statement was made involuntarily. After hours of taped interrogation that focused on his daughter’s injuries, the detectives had turned off the recorder for 25 minutes and then turned it back on to capture the disputed confession. The published decision includes this touching quote from the trial judge:

Here was a man who had a baby in the hospital for shaken baby syndrome or some traumatic issue. Several times during the discussion with him he was asked to tell the truth because that would predicate what the treatment would be for the baby. Implicit in that is if he didn’t, the baby was going to end up worse off.
I see that as compelling. I see the going back and forth by saying—minimizing to the defendant what’s going to happen to him if he [comes] clean and he confesses. I believe that the statements, given these facts and circumstances, were involuntarily made, and that’s based on the totality of circumstances. There’s no one thing that jumps out at me but there are a lot of things that together tell me that his will was overborne by two detectives in that hospital room over two days.

With supporting quotes from the interrogation transcripts, Judge Lopez added his own analysis:

Having made clear that G had serious medical issues that could be ameliorated by a confession—an assertion that, as a matter of medical fact, is without any support in the record—the officers also appealed to defendant’s paternal responsibilities, his religion, stated that defendant was the only one who could help G, and stated, in effect, that the way to provide that help was to tell the officers that he had accidentally shaken her.

I am always glad when someone in a position of authority stops to consider what it must be like for an accused parent, frantic with worry for their child, to be harangued by detectives intent on extracting a confession.


Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, Falsely accused, parents accused, SBS, shaken baby syndrome

Finding a Voice, and a Community

Beth and John Fankhauser in the lobby of the Glenwood Arts Theater, after the premiere of The Syndrome.

Beth and John Fankhauser in the lobby of the Glenwood Arts Theater, after the premiere showing of The Syndrome.

The premiere earlier this month of The Syndrome, a documentary that questions shaken baby theory, was even more thrilling than I’d expected: The film is riveting, and its first public showing, at the Kansas International Film Festival, drew a crowd so excited to meet each other that the lobby buzzed for an hour afterwards.

Beth Fankhauser was smiling, with tears in her eyes. “We thought we were the only ones,” she marveled. She and her husband John, who are now rearing their grandchildren while their daughter serves her prison time, met half a dozen other accused families that afternoon, reinforcing their decision to start speaking up after six years of waiting quietly and praying for justice.

“We allowed ourselves to be shamed… We thought we had to protect our family from the notoriety,” Beth explained, “But the system has betrayed us, and it’s time for the truth. I feel empowered to know that others are also walking this path.”

Denver, Colorado

Denver, Colorado

A weekend like that was the antidote I needed to get past my disappointment at the 14th International Conference on Shaken Baby Syndrome, in September in Denver, where the emphasis seemed to be on discrediting all critics.

In a breakout session on the first morning, for example, pediatrician Robert Block named me personally as one of the child abuse denialists who have “fooled the media,” and some judges, into thinking there is a controversy in this arena. “I would ask the parents who are here whether they think SBS is a myth,” he admonished, pointing out that writing a blog requires no qualifications and no certification, just like writing a book or making a movie—like Flawed Convictions and The Syndrome. Block objected that all our works disregard the real victims—the injured babies—and focus instead on the perpetrators.

Prosecutor Shelley Akamatsu from Boise, Idaho, reported that prosecutors are pressing abusive head trauma cases harder than ever in the courtroom. She remembered the first shaken baby conference, in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1996, when “convictions in AHT cases were not common,” she said, because only a few prosecutors, those who had taught themselves, knew how to handle the medical content. Eighteen years later, national training programs have prepared prosecutors “to meet untrue defenses, prove the severity of the forces inflicted, and effectively educate jurors,” she said, so that now “convictions in AHT cases are the norm rather than the exception.”

scalesAkamatsu called for an organized response now to defending these cases on appeal. “True justice means expertly defending the convictions we’ve worked so hard to get,” she said. “There’s a place for Innocence Projects,” she acknowledged, but “not in this arena, because these cases are so factually driven.”

Law professor Joëlle Anne Moreno argued that the courts, the press, and the public are all misinformed about infant head trauma. She dismissed on legal grounds the adequacy of the “new evidence” that was behind the reopening of the Jennifer Del Prete and Quentin Louis cases, the reversal of the Audrey Edmunds conviction, and the minority opinion in the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Shirley Ree Smith case. “We need to clear up these legal questions,” she said. “Don’t confuse causation with culpability. That’s what Professor Tuerkheimer is doing when she says this is a medical diagnosis of murder.”

Dr. Sandeep Narang, who is both a physician and an attorney, dismissed the idea of any real controversy about abusive head trauma as a fallacy manufactured by the defense and parroted by the media. He devoted the first hour of his talk to the medical literature, concluding that serious brain injury or death from a short fall is “very rare,” bleeding disorders are easy to identify, and both subdural hematoma and retinal hemorrhages are highly correlated with child abuse. The second hour he spent rebutting the “straw man” argument that shaken baby syndrome is “medically diagnosed murder.” He said he was puzzled by the claim that the child abuse literature exhibits circular reasoning:

There’s a lot of accident literature where we just looked at accidents. We didn’t look at abusive cohorts. We just looked at accidents. How is that circular?

Because Dr. Narang had the floor, no one answered his rhetorical question, but this is my blog, so please let me explain: These studies typically start with a series of patients seen at the authors’ hospitals over a period of time. Not infrequently, researchers studying accidenbabySilhouettetal injury simply remove from the study any cases of presumed child abuse, with the stated goal of limiting the study to verifiable accidents. The filtering out of abuse cases is typically done by the local child abuse team, or sometimes by the authors. The problematic result is that, if a child comes in with a serious injury and a history of a household fall during the study period, the case is diagnosed as abuse and therefore never appears in the data. This self-fulfilling sorting algorithm also taints the studies that attempt to describe for physicians how to recognize child abuse—for an on-line example, please see

Which brings me back to something that bothered me when I first read the trial transcripts of the 1996 case that brought this medico-legal tragedy to my attention:  As long as the child abuse teams continue to treat every one of these cases as obvious abuse with immediate symptoms, there is almost no way to gather evidence to the contrary. Decades of convictions have been based entirely on sincere but unproven medical opinion, and at this point, the opinion is based on decades of convictions.

Kathy and Kevin Hyatt at the Glenwood Arts Theater.

Kathy and Kevin Hyatt at the Glenwood Arts Theater, where The Syndrome premiered.

Last weekend I met not only Beth Fankhauser, who says her daughter Megan was watching a 15-month-old who fell off a bed, but also Kathy Hyatt, found innocent at trial in 2009 after a baby she was watching rolled off the couch, and the family of Amanda Brumfield, now in prison, who told emergency responders her goddaughter had fallen trying to climb out of a portable crib. I don’t understand what makes the doctors so sure that all these women, wives and mothers with good reputations in their communities, simply lost it and attacked babies they had been watching for months, babies they knew and loved.

If you are not familiar with the debate surrounding infant head injury, please see the home page of this blog site.

© 2014, Sue Luttner


Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome, parents accused, SBS, shaken baby syndrome

“The Syndrome” Trailer Makes Waves


Based on the trailer and publicity posted on the film’s web site, a group of child abuse professionals has written to the Kansas International Film Festival (KIFF) requesting that organizers cancel Sunday’s premiere screening of The Syndrome, a documentary about the debate surrounding shaken baby theory.

KIFF organizers received two letters earlier this week, one from the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome (NCSBS) that calls the film’s promotional materials “appalling, inaccurate, and potentially dangerous” and worries that viewers might get the impression that shaking a baby is not harmful, so that “numerous infants could be put in significant danger.”

A second letter signed by 29 child-abuse physicians protests:

“The prerelease materials… clearly state that the film provides a national platform for the tiny  handful of well-known child abuse defense witnesses to publicize their fringe message—that shaking an infant cannot cause death or traumatic brain injury.” [italics in original]

The physician letter calls The Syndrome “a gross and deliberate mischaracterization of vital public health and child safety issues,” and the authors seem to be threatening a lawsuit:

“This is a public health matter and as organizers of this film festival we hope you share this concern. Under these circumstances, we also hope that you will reconsider featuring this film as part of your upcoming festival. In the event that you decide to continue with premiering this film, we may opt to pursue additional legal action.”


Filmmakers Meryl and Susan Goldsmith, who are cousins

The letter-writers had threatened litigation earlier, complaining that a news clip in the trailer presented the words of a child abuse pediatrician out of context. Director Meryl Goldsmith says her intention was not to deceive but to include quotes from both sides in the preview. Investigative reporter Susan Goldsmith explains why they edited the trailer: “Instead of hassling with them over a few seconds, we just cut it even though it was exactly how the news clip appeared. We made no changes to the film.”

You can see the letter to KIFF organizers from NCSBS executive director Ryan Steinbeigle by clicking here, NCSBS letter, and the letter from the medical professionals by clicking here, physician letter.

Co-producer Meryl Goldsmith

Director, editor, and producer  Meryl Goldsmith will speak at the premiere showing of The Syndrome, on Sunday, October 12, in Overland Park, Kansas

The move to block The Syndrome isn’t surprising, after all the grief the film received from speakers at last month’s NCSBS conference. Political science professor Ross Cheit from Brown University, for example, in his talk “‘Exonerating’ the Guilty: Child Abuse and the Corruption of the False Conviction Movement,” characterized The Syndrome as “a love letter” to three defense experts. He said it was “a defense lawyer’s dream . . .  you get to put on your testimony and there’s no cross-examination.” He objected to the term used in the trailer, “shaken baby syndrome industrial complex,” which he said shows “incredible arrogance and remarkable ignorance” on the part of the filmmakers because, “Child abuse is not where the money is. Child abuse defense is where the money is.”

Professor Cheit compared The Syndrome to Capturing the Friedmans, a 2003 documentary that raised questions about a 1980s child sex-abuse case in New York. Prof. Cheit portrayed that film as a whitewash on behalf of father-and-son felons Arnold and Jesse Friedman. Noting that Capturing the Friedmans was a finalist for an academy award the year it came out, Prof. Cheit said he worries about the “gullible acceptance many people have for a movie that’s labeled ‘documentary.'”

Presumably the KIFF organizers and judges made their choices carefully, both when they included The Syndrome in their program and when they nominated it for a jury award. I haven’t seen the film yet, but I hope it addresses some of the troubling questions that have raged around shaken baby syndrome for decades now—and I doubt the take-home message is really that shaking a baby is safe.

As for protecting the children:  I am concerned about the infants who are denied the medical care they need when a hasty diagnosis of abuse stops the search for the medical conditions that underlie many cases of brain bleeding and swelling with no outward signs of trauma, as well as the siblings who are torn unnecessarily from loving homes. I am especially concerned about the cavalier opinion that household falls do not cause serious injury or death. I wish that parents were warned not only about shaking infants but also about dropping them. While most falls do not cause major injury, lives could be saved and injuries prevented if we started installing mats under changing tables and padding in play areas. Meanwhile, doctors simply do not know enough about infant neurobiology to support the definitive statements about infant shaking that have been winning in court for 30 years.

For my blog posting after the premiere showing of The Syndrome in October of 2014, go to Finding a Voice, and a Community.


Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome, SBS, shaken baby syndrome

“The Syndrome” Promises Fireworks

Susan Goldsmith

Susan Goldsmith

“Shaken baby syndrome is the most mind-blowing story I have encountered in 26 years as a journalist,” says Susan Goldsmith, whose film The Syndrome has been nominated for a Jury Award at its premiere next month at the Kansas International Film Festival. “The deeper and deeper you go, the worse it gets.”

Even over the phone, Goldsmith crackles with the same energy that makes the trailer so compelling and no doubt earned the film its nomination. “When I found out how the promoters of the theory are trying to silence their critics,” she flares, “I knew I had to make this movie.”

She promises an “explosive” exposé, consistent with her web site’s report that the film “unflinchingly identifies those who have built careers and profited from this theory along with revealing their shocking pasts.”

Dr. John Plunkett

Dr. John Plunkett

The Syndrome profiles three of the most outspoken critics of shaking theory, forensic pathologist John Plunkett, pediatric neuroradiologist Pat Barnes, and neurosurgeon Ron Uscinski.

The film also features a few of the personal stories Goldsmith heard during years of research. “Those families, who have been ripped apart in so many ways, they keep me inspired,” Goldsmith insists. “If I was traumatized like that, I’d never want to talk about it, but you call them up, and all they want is to help get the word out.”

Dr. Charles Hyman, a critic of shaken baby theory, and Susan Goldsmith

Dr. Charles Hyman, a critic of shaken baby theory, and Susan Goldsmith

Goldsmith expects criticism from what she calls “the shaken baby industrial complex.”

“I’m used to being attacked,” she shrugs. “My job as an investigative reporter is to piss people off.”

Goldsmith has handled controversial stories before, including an article sympathetic to a convicted child molester—which later won a first-place award for crime and justice reporting—and a profile defending Nigerian anthropologist John Ogbu at UC Berkeley, tarred as a “Clarence Thomas” for his study of black high school students at an affluent Cleveland suburb. She’s often had trouble pitching her ideas, she concedes, “but I have never encountered the insane resistance I’ve seen to this story.”

Co-producer Meryl Goldsmith, Susan's cousin

Meryl Goldsmith

Goldsmith says that people seem to go “fuzzy in the head” when the words child abuse are used, “and that’s a very dangerous place for us to be in.” The same human instinct that fostered the shaken baby nightmare also made it nearly impossible to explain her conclusions, she sighs. “Over and over, people would just say, ‘They must be shaking them.'” Recognizing the resistance to their topic within the film industry, she and her cousin Meryl Goldsmith found their own funding and made their own movie.

I’m excited: The Syndrome could be a watershed in the history of shaken baby syndrome. I confess I had the same thought about Lee Scheier’s 2005 Chicago Tribune treatment, Emily Bazelon’s 2011 New York Times Magazine piece, the 2011 NPR/ProPublica/Frontline series, and Deborah Tuerkheimer’s 2014 book, but every bit of exposure helps bring the truth to light, and this film promises to be a high-wattage experience.

I knew Goldsmith subscribed to this blog, but she says in fact she’s a “religious reader” and she has “learned a tremendous amount” from it. I am gratified and encouraged.

The Syndrome premieres on Sunday, October 12, 12:15 pm at the Glenwood Arts Theater in Overland Park, Kansas. It will also be shown at the Twin Cities Film Fest, on October 24 & 25, buy tickets here.

For a sampling of Goldsmith’s work and awards, click on her tab on the film’s web site.

Copyright 2014, Sue Luttner

If you are not familiar with the debate surrounding shaken baby syndrome, please see the home page of this site.


Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, parents accused, SBS, shaken baby syndrome

Light Breaks in New Mexico

danielConsaulAlthough the case doesn’t involve shaken baby syndrome, a  decision last week by the New Mexico Supreme Court addresses a fundamental issue in shaking cases, the reliability of expert medical opinion in child abuse prosecutions.

The decision freed Daniel Consaul, convicted in 2008 of “intentional and negligent child abuse resulting in great bodily harm to an infant,” for what the local child abuse team had concluded was the intentional suffocation of his 10-week old nephew Jack. The court vacated Consaul’s conviction “with prejudice”—meaning he cannot be re-tried—citing insufficient evidence. The opinion notes in the introduction:

Child abuse prosecutions are unusual in that sometimes medical-opinion testimony provides the only evidence that a wrongful act occurred or that the accused committed a wrongful act…

Our review here focuses on whether this expert testimony alone—testimony in this case based solely on a deduction from an absence of other causes that a certain event likely occurred—is sufficient to support a criminal conviction

Consaul lived with his sister and her baby, and had been caring regularly for the boy since his birth. He told detectives he had checked on his nephew at 1:30 in the morning after hearing the child cry out and found that Jack had vomited and seemed stiff. He called his sister at work, and with a neighbor they took the baby to the hospital in Las Cruces, where the boy arrived shivering and lethargic but breathing and “appropriately responsive.” Unsure of the underlying problem, doctors administered fluids and performed lab tests. A few hours later, Jack was airlifted to the University of New Mexico Hospital, where he began seizing. CT scans then revealed brain swelling apparently triggered by insufficient oxygen.


From the Mayo Clinic swaddling instructions

In his first police interview, Consaul said he had swaddled Jack and placed him in his crib that night at about 11:30 pm. He did not specify the position, and the police did not ask. In a more pointed interview the following day, he said he had swaddled the boy more tightly than usual and laid him face-down in his crib. He conceded he was frustrated with Jack’s crying. The subsequent indictment charged that Consaul had endangered his nephew ‘s life and health “by swaddling Jack …tightly and leaving him unattended for an extended period of time.” At trial, the prosecution also argued that Consaul had intentionally suffocated the boy.

Refreshingly, the judges made a careful examination of the Child Abuse Response Team (CART) report that informed that conclusion, writing:

While proof beyond a reasonable doubt is not required for admissibility of an opinion, it is essential to support a jury’s finding of guilt. As a reviewing court, we must decide whether a reasonable jury could “reason” from the available evidence to the point of finding guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

In this case, there was no substantial evidence pointing to Daniel’s guilt other than whatever could be said of the medical testimony, and when that evidence is analyzed, it falls short of establishing proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Critical care specialist Dr. Mary Johnson had testified, for example, that one of her reasons for concluding that Jack had been intentionally suffocated was that his uncle had made a “calculated” change in his story. She said that Consaul had first reported putting Jack down on his back, but then claimed he’d placed the child on his stomach, after learning that doctors suspected suffocation. Dr. Johnson was apparently relying on the CART report, which did not include an interview with Consaul but quoted Jack’s mother Heidi as saying that the boy was usually put down on his back and that Consaul had told her he found Jack on his back after his cry in the night. Like the initial police report,the CART report contained no statement from Consaul about how he placed the boy in his crib that night. The court notes:

The assertion of a “change of story” was based on what Heidi recalled Daniel telling her, which she then repeated to Dr. Coleman, which was then transmitted via the CART report as tertiary hearsay to Dr. Johnson. It is difficult to know how to interpret this so-called contradiction or assess its reliability. Even if Heidi accurately recounted what Daniel had told her, it was that “Daniel found Jack on his back [and] had vomited,” not that he had put Jack to bed in that position. (Emphasis added.)

Although not a perfect analogy, this slurring of details echoes a sequence I’ve seen routinely in hospital records: An initial assessment raises the suspicion of inflicted head injury. During interrogation, a caregiver admits to some kind of shaking, usually mild, often in the course of attempted resuscitation. The detectives report back, and subsequent doctors’ notes include a phrase something like, “consistent with admitted shaking by caregiver.”

In another parallel with shaking diagnoses, Dr. Johnson testified that she had reached her conclusions partly because Jack’s body showed no signs of trauma:

After prompting by the district court, the State asked Dr. Johnson what physical manifestation from her examination led her to believe that Jack had been smothered. Dr. Johnson responded that Jack’s seizures were an indicator, as was the lack of any other physical manifestations. “There is often nothing that can be seen, nothing on the face, no bruises, no bleeding. No petechiae. Greater than 50 percent of the time, there is absolutely nothing on the skin or on the baby that would indicate a problem.”(3)

This observation inspired the best line in the decision, footnote 3:

  1. We leave for another day an examination of how the lack of any physical evidence of child abuse can somehow become probative of the crime of child abuse.

In addition to criticizing the evidence, the opinion condemns the trial court’s decision to issue one set of jury instructions for the separate charges of negligent child abuse and intentional child abuse:

Defendant was entitled to separate jury instructions for negligent and intentional child abuse resulting in great bodily harm given that the State’s theories of how that harm occurred were different and inconsistent; for negligent child abuse, the state told the jury that defendant put the baby to bed carelessly, tightly swaddled and placed face down on a pillow, and argued that this act of negligence caused baby’s injuries, and for intentional child abuse the state hypothesized that defendant did not just put baby to bed carelessly, but that defendant actually used a pillow or his hand to suffocate baby so he could not breathe, and jury was never asked to specify which criminal act defendant committed.

The judges quote from the prosecution’s final argument that a juror might think Consaul “did it on purpose” or might think “he’s just an idiot” who put the baby down negligently, “but everybody knows, and we know he knew better than to do that.” The court’s response:

The prosecutor invited the jury to convict Daniel of child abuse whether or not the jury agreed on what criminal act Daniel actually committed. Jurors should not be left free, let alone encouraged by the prosecutor, each to go his or her own way when it comes to determining what criminal conduct —if more than one act is alleged—caused the child’s harm. The jury needs to agree unanimously on what conduct caused harm to the child.

While addressing the many issues raised by the case, the opinion criticizes the state legislature for its ambiguous definition of “negligence” in its child abuse guidelines. Noting that the law recognizes a distinction between civil versus criminal negligence, the opinion observes:

We note, however, that in Section 30–6–1(A)(3) the Legislature appeared to capture two standards of mens rea in one sentence when it defined “negligently” as meaning “that a person knew or should have known of the danger involved and acted with a reckless disregard for the safety or health of the child.” § 30–6–1(A)(3) (emphasis added). The Legislature joined these two distinct states of mind with the conjunctive “and.” Taken literally, the text of the statute refers to both ordinary negligence and criminal recklessness all in a single legislative breath. The Legislature cannot rationally have intended such self- contradiction.

The opinion also contains an educational discussion of the difference between the medical concept of the differential diagnosis—“the determination of which of two or more diseases with similar symptoms is the one from which the patient is suffering, by a systematic comparison and contrasting of the clinical findings”—and the legal concept of the differential etiology—”a process that identifies a list of external agents… that potentially caused the disease.” Quoting another case opinion, the justices note:

“[P]hysicians receive more formal training in differential diagnosis than in differential etiology…. [P]racticing physicians have more experience working with the differential diagnosis technique, since in many cases the cause of an illness is irrelevant to the patient’s treatment.”

The child abuse team’s conclusions about intentional suffocation would seem to fall into the area of “etiology,” since there are countless ways for oxygen flow to be interrupted.

This case is cleaner than a shaking prosecution, because there were no subdural hematomas and no retinal hemorrhages, and therefore no presumption of violent assault, but I believe the same underlying issues apply. I hope to see more judges taking such a careful look at how the child protection teams reach their conclusions and recognizing the difference between sincere medical opinion and proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

copyright 2014, Sue Luttner

If you are not familiar with the debate surrounding shaken baby syndrome, please see the home page of this site.


Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, SBS, shaken baby syndrome