Category Archives: Innocence Project

Appeals All Over the Map, as Usual

While the appeals on behalf of care providers Jennifer Del Prete and René Bailey work their ways through the courts, a number of other painful cases have been passing milestones without news coverage.

Hopes Dimmed in the West

Robert and Gabriel Wilkes, 2008

Robert and Gabriel Wilkes, 2008

In the “exasperating” category is an April 2 decision in Montana, where a district judge has rejected an Innocence Project petition to reopen the case of  single father James Wilkes, convicted in 2009. As described in past news coverage of the case, Wilkes had spent the day moving into a new apartment, and then stopped by the unit of a friend and neighbor who had been caring for 3-month-old Gabriel. He stayed and chatted while feeding the boy a bottle. Wilkes says that a few minutes after the two returned to their own apartment, Gabriel made a “gurgling” noise and quit breathing. At the hospital, though, doctors said the presence of the triad proved the child had been shaken.

The appeal argued that Wilkes had ineffective assistance of counsel, because his trial attorney had called  only one witness, Wilkes himself, who told the jury his version of what happened that evening. But the jury also heard from nine prosecution experts, who agreed that little Gabriel couldn’t have drunk a bottle after the presumed assault. Remarkably, the district court overlooked this imbalance, noting that the attorney had tried to find a defense expert, and in fact had contacted forensic pathologist Dr. Thomas Bennett, a “recognized expert in child abuse”—who had agreed with the state’s doctors.

EdgesOfTruthOne fundamental problem here is that if the defense attorney had done his research, he never would have contacted Dr. Bennett with a shaking case: Dr. Bennett’s over-diagnosis of shaking injuries triggered one of the first high-profile articles questioning shaken baby syndrome in the courtroom, the 1998 piece by Mark Hanson in the ABA Journal, “Why Are Iowa’s Babies Dying?” As also reported in the Los Angeles Times, Dr. Bennett ultimately resigned his post as state medical examiner after a series of unsupportable shaking diagnoses. The eventual exoneration of babysitter Mary Weaver was part of his unraveling.

Still, Judge Ed McLean of the Montana Fourth Judicial District agreed in his written opinion (Wilkes 2014-04-02) with a lower court that the trial strategy had been reasonable and that “any assertion that the mere presence of an expert for the defense would have made a difference… is mere speculation.” Judge McLean’s decision also dismissed new opinions offered in the petition from an array of medical experts for the defense, although attorney Brendan McQuillan from the Montana Innocence Project insists his team “found and presented new evidence never discovered before or after trial that the child had neonatal-hemochromitosis, a rare liver disorder which is most often fatal.”

Clearer Thinking in Maryland

Illustrating the unpredictable nature of these appeals, a Maryland circuit court reached the opposite decision just a few days later in a similar case, overturning the 2010 conviction of Gail Pinder Dobson, a child care provider with both a long history and a sterling reputation in her community before she was accused of shaking a 9-month-old baby to death. Dobson had in fact taken care of the infant’s mother when she was a baby decades earlier.

dobson

Gail Dobson, 2009

Like Wilkes in Montana, Dobson reported that a few minutes after she fed the boy a bottle, he made a “gurgling” sound and stopped breathing. She attempted first aid and dialed 911, but the boy died later that day. Soon after Dobson’s indictment in November of 2009, her attorney contacted a single expert witness, who supplied his report at the end of July for an August trial:  He agreed with the state’s physicians that the infant had suffered an inflicted injury just before the 911 call. Although Dobson’s trial featured a number of character witnesses, her attorney did not call any medical experts, with the explanation that “Petitioner denied any type of abuse and her credibility should have been sufficient.”

In Dobson’s case, though, the court concluded that the attorney “did not use reasonable diligence” by not getting the doctor’s opinion in time to find an alternative expert. The state argued that Dobson’s attorney was employing a legitimate trial tactic, but the judge wrote, “[The attorney's] assertion that he did not need expert testimony is both illogical and untenable. Such testimony would have both corroborated Petitioner’s version of the facts and refuted the testimony of the State’s experts.” You can read the decision, by Kent County Circuit Court Judge Paul M. Bowman, at Dobson -Kent County, 2014-04-07.

A Long, Lonely Road in Tennessee

russellMaze

Russell and Alex Maze, 1999

I was especially sad to hear that the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has denied the habeas petition of convicted father Russell Maze, now serving a life sentence for the death of his son Alex, only five weeks old and still days short of his due date the afternoon in 1999 that Russell claims he found the boy gasping for breath in his crib. Alex had been born in respiratory distress, with the umbilical cord wrapped tightly around his neck, and he spent his first two weeks of life in the intensive care nursery. A few days before his collapse, his parents had taken him to the after-hours clinic, where they were told they were being over-anxious first-time parents.

Maze’s case history is complex. His prosecutor at two trials was Brian Holmgren, an advisory board member of the National Center on Shaken Baby Sydnrome and the co-author of a passionate essay last year in the Utah Law Review decrying the minority opinion in the Shirley Ree Smith case.

Dropped Before Trial

Finally, in Washington state, a welcome outcome that short-circuits the need for an appeal later: Charges have been dropped against a young father after a prosecution motion that said staffing shortages had precluded their dealing with the case in a timely manner. Charges were dropped without prejudice, so the state could refile, but defense attorney Chuck Henry said he doubts they will revisit, as both the evidence and the handling of the case were inadequate. “This case was truly more about prosecutorial case mismanagement than it was about SBS, which never existed in the first place,” he summarized.

copyright 2014 Sue Luttner

If you are not familiar with the debate surrounding Shaken Baby Syndrome, please see the home page of this web site.

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Shaken Baby Doubts Keep Surfacing

As the improbable accusations, heart-wrenching convictions, and dogged appeals accumulate, the press is running more stories about disputed diagnoses of shaken baby syndrome.

Prof. Adele Bernhard

Law professor Adele Bernhard

In upstate New York, for example, the Democrat and Chronicle has run a two-part series of what it calls “Watchdog Reports,” with independent text and video treatments.

Part I, “Shaken baby science doubt grows,” features a complex and thoughtful text piece about child-care provider René Bailey, whose 2002 conviction is now being appealed by Professor Adele Bernhard and her students at Pace Law School’s Post Conviction Project. The story includes an intriguing tale told by an adult caring for the only witness to the crucial event, a 2-year-old boy who seemed to be re-enacting the fatal incident afterwards, again and again with stuffed animals.

Michael Tantillo Ontario County District Attorney

District Attorney Michael Tantillo
Ontario County, New York

The video offers statements from both sides: Ontario County District Attorney Michael Tantillo says the “vast majority” of experts are comfortable with the diagnosis once known as SBS, now called abusive head trauma. Defense attorney William Eastman expresses his skepticism without explaining that he was part of the team that represented Barbara Hershey, 67 years old when she was convicted in 2007 for the presumed shaking death of her 4-month-old grandson. Hershey was released in 2011, after her sentence was reduced in a proceeding that did not address the validity of the diagnosis. Like so many women in her position, Hershey has had the support of her family from the beginning.

Part II of the series, “Shaken-baby triad still rules in New York courts,” devotes both the text and video segments to Hershey’s case—the treatments are different, though, and the commercial before the video is only 15 seconds, so I recommend both reading and watching.

Decision Returns Quashed Conviction to the Headlines

ECHRA European human rights court, meanwhile, has declined to order compensation for accused mother Lorraine Allen, whose 2000 conviction for presumably shaking her son to death was reversed in 2005. Ms. Allen says she was not surprised at the decision, but is bitterly disappointed that she still has no visitation rights with her surviving son, born after the charges were brought and adopted out against her will.

Allen’s case is one of the last in which Dr. Waney Squier testified to the mainstream model of shaken baby syndrome, repeating on the stand what she’d learned from her medical mentors and colleagues: that the boy’s combination of subdural hematoma, retinal hemorrhages, and encephalopathy represented a shaking injury.

Dr. Waney Squier, at the 2009 Evidence-Based Medicine Symposium Denver, CO

Dr. Waney Squier,
at the 2009 Evidence-Based Medicine Symposium,
Denver, CO

Dr. Squier realized the model was wrong over the next couple of years, she has said, based on her experiences with cases like Allen’s and the work of Dr. Jennian Geddes. “By then it was far too late for my family,” notes Allen, although Dr. Squier did help overturn her conviction—after Allen had already served her time in prison and lost both her sons and her marriage to the accusations. At the time of his death in 1998, four-month-old Patrick had no bruises, grip marks, neck injury, or other signs of violence, only the pattern of intracranial bleeding and swelling that at the time was considered proof of abusive shaking.

The current coverage focuses on whether the vacation of Allen’s conviction was an actual exoneration, as explained in this report from The Guardian:Lorraine Allen denied compensation after being wrongfully jailed for killing son.”

gavelStethThe diagnosis in this case was made in the face of this extraordinary history:  On December 4, 1998, 4-month-old Patrick received his third round of immunizations. At 1 am the next morning, Allen called her doctor with a report that the boy was having trouble breathing. Dr. Barber made a house call and found the child a little “snuffly” and with a slightly elevated temperature, but otherwise fine. He left the home at about 1:30. An hour later, Allen called for emergency help with an unresponsive child. Patrick was resuscitated and placed on life support, but he never regained consciousness and died two days later. Prosecutors concluded that Allen had violently shaken her son after the doctor’s visit and before the emergency call.

For a solid account of the case, written last year for The Justice Gap by a consultant to Allen’s defense team, please see “Shaken Baby Syndrome—And the Fight for Justice.

Articulate Voices Speak Out

Back in the States, the Medill Justice Project has put together its best shaken baby video yet, including a rare interview with law professor Deborah Tuerkheimer, who has caused major waves the past few years with her journal articles and New York Times op ed piece.

Series Examines the Role of Social Services

And moving north again, the Weekend Telegram in Nova Scotia has run a thoughtful three-part series featuring a familiar tale:  An infant with previous health issues removed by social workers who believed the little girl had been shaken—in this case, even though doctors deemed the evidence against the mother too murky for criminal charges.

Part 1 “Guilty until proven innocent

Part 2 “Justice at a heavy price

Part 3 “Victims of tunnel vision,” which introduces the case of Audrey Edmunds.

Judge Listens to Parents

A High Court judge in Britain has declined to remove three children from the care of their parents, despite findings of subdural hematoma in each of their offspring. The judge seems to have been swayed by the family’s complex medical history, as explained in the coverage on the web site This Is Cornwall:Parents win battle to keep their children out of care.”

Misdiagnosis Prompts Bill

Finally, a family in the southern U.S. has enlisted the help of their legislator after social services restricted access to their older children because of an abuse report triggered by retinal hemorrhages in their infant’s eyes. A follow-up evaluation found no evidence of abuse and attributed the infant’s death to a bad reaction to medication, but the family was disrupted for 5-1/2 months while the paperwork caught up to them.

As the child’s mother noted, “We were kind of guilty until proven innocent.”

Television station KATC in Layfayette, Louisiana, offers both video and text coverage on their web site, at “Iota family fighting for new legislation after misdiagnosis forces call to child services.”

Business Goes On as Usual

Despite all of these developments, the accusations continue—and the interrogations and the prosecutions. Just in the last couple of days, for example, young men who initially denied any abuse have become confession statistics:

Father Accepts Plea Deal in Shaken Baby Investigation

Police:  Ogden Man Admitted To Shaking Baby in His Care

And a couple has been cast by the police and the press in the worst possible light after they sought medical help for their son, who was found to have symptoms “consistent with” shaken baby syndrome:

Couple arrested after baby found unresponsive

I suppose some or all of these people might be guilty, but myself, I see lots of room for innocence in all three cases.

-Sue Luttner

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

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Dr. Norman Guthkelch, Still on the Medical Frontier

Dr Norman Guthkelch, Oct. 2012

Dr. Norman Guthkelch at Medill 
Photo by Sue Luttner

At 97, retired pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Norman Guthkelch has ridden more than one wave of change in the practice of medicine.

He remembers that his mentor Sir Geoffrey Jefferson, Britain’s first professor of neurosurgery, cautioned his students against relying too heavily on x-rays, for example. Jefferson would warn, “The eye has rested upon the evidence of fracture, and the mind has traveled no further.”

“X-rays created a meaningless distinction between ‘fractured skull’ and ‘no fracture,'” Guthkelch explains, “whereas the important thing is the degree of damage to the underlying brain.”

Guthkelch’s medical training was interrupted by World War II:  He went straight from his 1944 residency in Manchester into the army, and found himself neurosurgeon-in-charge of a small team attached to a general hospital. During the Battle of the Bulge, he was in surgery for 36 hours, breaking for food but not for sleep.

“That time gave me an advantage over surgeons with no battle experience,” he reflects. “I’d seen enough blood. Operating for its own sake was not an attraction.”

twinsAfter the war, Guthkelch returned to a fellowship under Jefferson, who had honed his own understanding of head injury during World War I. Relieved to be treating a general population, Guthkelch found himself especially charmed by his youngest patients, a delight noted by his mentor. “Jeff told me when I came back to finish off my training that my future lay in developing pediatric neurosurgery,” Guthkelch recalls. “He was quite right.” As Jefferson had held Britain’s first professorship in neurosurgery, Guthkelch in his turn received the nation’s first pediatric neurosurgery appointment, at the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital. “It was only by a few weeks,” he chuckles, “but I was the first.”

One of his observations was that children in neurological distress were sometimes suffering the effects of subdural hematoma—that is, blood underneath the dura mater, the tough but flexible membrane that lines the interior of the skull. A subdural hematoma does not invade the brain, but it can exert dangerous pressure on the tissues below. And while a pool of subdural blood may dissolve on its own, it may also expand, causing further problems.

Guthkelch published his first paper on pediatric subdural hematoma in 1953, when he wrote in the British Medical Journal:

“It should be emphasized that infantile subdural effusion is not a rare condition. Study of the records of the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital for the four years covered by this series shows that, of all surgical conditions of the central nervous system occurring in the first two years of life, only spina bifida and hydrocephalus were seen more often than subdural haematoma… Similarly, Smith and her co-workers (1951) have reported finding subdural effusions in almost a half of their cases of bacterial meningitis in infancy, and Everley Jones’s (1952) figures are similar.”

At that time, before CAT scans or MRIs, doctors inferred the presence of subdurals in living patients from the symptoms: convulsions, vomiting, and headaches in adults or fussiness in babies. The only way to confirm a subdural hematoma was to penetrate the subdural space. With an infant, the surgeon could pass a needle between the unfused plates of the immature skull. A problematic pool could then be drained, slowly, over several days to avoid a sudden change in pressure. In his 1953 paper Guthkelch described the procedure developed by pioneering pediatric neurosurgeon Franc Ingreham at the Children’s Hospital Boston, and reported on his own findings while treating 24 cases.

guthkelchQuote.The paper that brought Guthkelch into the shaken baby arena is the advice he offered in the  May 22, 1971, issue of the British Medical Journal under the title, “Infantile Subdural Haematoma and Its Relationship to Whiplash Injury.” At that time in Britain, Guthkelch says, shaking a child in the course of discipline, “or not even discipline, correction, shall we say,” was considered acceptable. He recommended that health workers discourage the habit, as it was causing damage to developing brains. He cited cases in which parents had told him of shaking their child, and he referenced a paper by U.S. radiologist John Caffey, who had noted the combination of subdural hematoma and long-bone fractures in a few very young children. Guthkelch’s paper on shaking aroused not much interest in England, he recalls. He mailed a copy to Dr. Caffey at his hospital in Pennsylvania and began his own local education campaign. “My great allies in this were the case workers, who were a tremendous resource,” he says. “They were usually trained nurses, whom the health system would pay to make rounds in economically depressed areas.”

Although he likes many aspects of the British health-care system, Guthkelch has a major quibble with one provision:  Mandatory retirement for surgeons at age 65, a milestone that began looming for him in the 1970s. “I wasn’t ready to retire,” he objects.

normanCloseBut he had an obvious back-up plan:  The States. His mother had a close friend in Philadelphia, and he’d been brought up on Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. He accepted an invitation to the Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital, where he reports feeling immediately at home. “You Americans are very lovable people,” he grins.

He was surprised, however, to realize that his colleagues were diagnosing a condition known as “Caffey’s syndrome,” believed to result from violent shaking of an infant. Caffey’s paper on infant shaking, published in the U.S. a year after Guthkelch’s in Britain, had enjoyed far greater circulation, and few had noticed the footnote citing Guthkelch’s original paper. “No one was asking me about it, and I didn’t really have anything further to say about it,” Guthkelch shrugs.

He stayed in the field until 1992, as improvements in medical imaging  and surgical technique transformed the way doctors diagnose and treat problems of the brain. Neurosurgeons were collaborating with radiologists as they honed their abilities to decipher the lights and shadows of CT scans and MRIs. “I loved every minute of it,” he beams.

He’d intended to retire in the 1980s, when he left Pittsburg Children’s and moved with his wife to Tucson, Arizona. The local university hospital, however, asked him to take on a temporary position at the neurosurgery unit, where he remained for another eight years. Then he finally found time to work on his translation of the New Testament from the Greek, to organize a lifetime of bird photographs, and to spend more time with his wife as her health began to fail.

Drayton Witt and his wife.Courtesy Arizona Justice Project

Drayton Witt and his wife
Courtesy Arizona Justice Project

Then he was approached by law professor Carrie Sperling with the Arizona Justice Project. She and her students were working for the release of Drayton Witt, a young father convicted of second-degree murder ten years earlier for the presumed shaking death of his son.

Sperling says she was electrified to learn that the grandfather of shaken baby theory lived two hours south of her. She and her students were convinced that Witt was innocent: His son Steven had suffered a short lifetime of serious health problems, including hospitalization for seizures that were never explained, not even fully controlled with medication. Sperling was unsure of the reception she would receive from Dr. Guthkelch, “but he turned out to be an amazing man,” she says, “an amazing, gracious man.”

Guthkelch read Steven Witt’s medical records with growing dismay. He later told National Public Radio reporter Joseph Shapiro, in an interview now available on podcast, “I think I used the expression in my report, ‘I wouldn’t hang a cat on the evidence of shaking'” in that case. Sperling’s team successfully petitioned to vacate Witt’s conviction, and later the charges were dropped.

Carrie Sperling, at an Innocence Network meeting

Carrie Sperling, at an Innocence Network meeting

“It was Carrie who opened my eyes to how much of this is going on,” Guthkelch sighs.

He says he never intended that the presence of subdural hematoma and retinal hemorrhages, with or without encephalopathy, should prove that a child had been shaken, only that shaking was one possible cause of the bleeding. “I am frankly quite disturbed that what I intended as a friendly suggestion for avoiding injury to children has become an excuse for imprisoning innocent parents.”

Sperling suggested he read law professor Deborah Tuerkheimer’s 2009 law-journal article on how shaken baby syndrome is handled in the courtroom. “She certainly nailed it,” he says of Tuerkheimer’s work. Some months later he saw some “harsh, unprofessionally harsh” criticism of that paper. When he tried to talk about it with people he knew from the child-protection community, he realized how wide the schism was. “There are cases where people on both sides, both of whom I admire equally, are barely able to speak to one another,” he told NPR.

He contacted Tuerkheimer, and the two of them hit it off. They speak regularly on the phone, he reports, and “we find we are of one mind on this subject.”

Dr. Guthkelch meets with students from the Medill School of Journalism.Photo by Alison Flowers, courtesy of the Medill Justice Project

Meeting with students from the Medill School of Journalism
Photo by Alison Flowers, courtesy of the Medill Justice Project

After his wife’s death, Guthkelch moved to a suburb outside of Chicago, where he’s continued trying to be an ambassador between the two sides. When he learned that journalism students at the nearby Medill Justice Project had taken on a shaken baby case, he reached out to them. One result is a first-rate podcast  that includes interviews with both him and Dr. Robert Block, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

When Dr. Sandeep Narang, pediatrician and attorney, published an argument that courtroom testimony about child abuse is best left to trained child-protection physicians, not paid experts, Guthkelch wrote the introduction to a rebuttal by a team of advocates for the innocent accused. (For a quick summary of Narang’s article and Guthkelch’s response, see this page.)

Dr. Ron Uscinski and Dr. Norman Guthkelch,October 2012

Dr. Ron Uscinski and Dr. Norman Guthkelch
October 2012

Guthkelch also spends what time he can reviewing cases. “Let me be quite frank,” he says, “For a 97-year-old I’m fairly well preserved, but my memory is not what it once was.” Producing a medical report takes careful concentration and more double-checking, as does following and responding to  the literature.

But he perseveres. “I want to do what I can to straighten this out before I die,” he says, “even though I don’t suppose I’ll live to see the end of it.”

Which reminds me of something Carrie Sperling said about him when I spoke with her at the Twelfth International Conference on Shaken Baby Syndrome/Abusive Head Trauma in the fall of 2012.  “I felt a little bit bad about getting Norman Guthkelch involved, because I knew he would become controversial” she said in a video dispatch posted on the Medill site. “I did warn him, but I don’t think there’s any way to warn people of how the wrath can come down on you when you get involved in this sort of thing…  It’s amazing the effect he’s had on the experts I know, on the people I know.  I’m hoping that he lives a long, long time so that he can  meet with as many people as want to meet with him and talk to as many people as want to talk with him.”

copyright 2013, Sue Luttner

If you are unfamiliar with the debate about shaken baby syndrome, please see the home page of this blog.

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Cracks in the Stone Wall

audreyCoverAs ill-considered and improbable shaken baby convictions accumulate, the stories of injustice find their way out.

It Happened to Audrey

Headlining this week’s good press, Audrey Edmunds’s book has hit the shelves. It Happend to Audrey, written with journalist Jill Wellington, is a from-the-heart dispatch from the front lines of the struggle.

Edmunds recounts her horror the morning a baby she was caring for seemed to choke on a bottle and quit breathing—and then her disbelief and terror as a diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome sent her to prison. Anyone who has been accused will recognize the warping of reality as investigators, social workers, and the courts accept the diagnosis, ignoring actual evidence that should have raised questions.

Four years after Edmunds’s conviction, the same medical examiner autopsied another little girl, who had been brought to the hospital with recurrent vomiting in the mid-morning. When the breathing problems and seizures started 17 hours later, medical imaging revealed a brain injury that had gone unnoticed all day by a series of medical professionals—a documented case of the “lucid interval.” Dr. Robert Huntington reported this case to a medical journal, and was forced to reconsider having testified to immediate symptoms at Edmunds’s trial. A state appeals court ultimately overturned her conviction in 2007, after years of work by law students under the direction of Keith Findley at the Wisconsin Innocence Project. Edmunds recalls her thoughts during a hearing along the way, as a series of child-abuse experts reiterated why they believed seven-month-old Natalie Beard had died from a violent assault at the hands of her last caregiver:

“No matter what their research, theories, formulas or experience said about Natalie Beard, there was only one truth:  I did not shake or inflict traumatic brain injury on that child. The state’s presentation was pure conjecture. I was always thoroughly beaten by the ongoing lies.”

katie

Katie Couric

Edmunds and Findley have taped a segment with Katie Couric, and are scheduled to appear on the Katie program tomorrow, Monday, December 10, at 3 pm, at least in my time zone.

Montana Innocence Project

Meanwhile in Montana, reporter Jessica Mayrer has published a well researched article in the Missoula Independent that considers the cases of three state inmates convicted of shaking infants.

Robert and Gabriel Wilkes, 2008

Robert Wilkes with Gabriel, 2008

  • Robert “Dave” Wilkes said his 3-month-old son Gabriel started making gurlging noises and then stopped breathing while lying on the floor of their new apartment. The prosecution convinced a jury that Wilkes had shaken his son to death. Now the Montana Innocence Project says their doctors have found evidence the boy suffered from a liver disease that could have caused his melt-down.
  • Michael Reim of Helena requested a trial by judge this year instead of by jury, because of the complex medical evidence against him. After listening to prosecution doctors who said Reim’s son had been shaken, and to defense doctors who said the boy suffered from a clotting disorder, the judge ruled that Reim was guilty of abusing his son.
  • Young mother and infant-care provider Nevada Ugalde of Billings said she left an 8-month-old in a crib while doing laundry on a June day in 2008, and returned to find him on the floor. At her trial, doctors testified that she must have assaulted the boy, as he couldn’t have suffered fatal injuries falling out of a crib 32 inches onto carpet.

Cathy Lynn Henderson

And in Texas the Court of Criminal Appeals has vacated Cathy Lynn Henderson’s 1995 conviction, also based on testimony that a short fall could not cause fatal injuries.  At her trial, Medical Examiner Dr. Roberto Bayardo had called Ms. Henderson’s account of dropping the baby onto a concrete floor “impossible” and “incredible” as an explanation for his injuries.

In 2007, however,  after reading Dr. John Plunkett’s paper on short pediatric falls and the evolving biomechanical literature, Dr Bayardo told the appeals court that he would no longer call the infant’s death a homicide but instead would list the cause of death as “undetermined.” Dr. Plunkett and a number of other experts also testified at the hearing. The court ruled in favor of Ms. Henderson, writing:

The court further found that Dr. Bayardo’s re-evaluation of his 1995 opinion is based on credible, new scientific evidence and constitutes a material exculpatory fact. The trial court concluded that applicant has proven by clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable juror would have convicted her of capital murder in light of her new evidence.

Interrogation Tactics Under Fire

Finally, with thanks to The Amanda Truth Project for the story, a teenage mother in Massachusetts whose videotaped confession was thrown out last year is now suing the city of Worcester. Police sergeant Kevin Pageau and his partner had bullied and lied to Nga Truong during hours of interrogation the day after the death of her toddler son. Reporter David Boeri at WBUR in Boston, which had sued for the release of the interrogation tapes, quotes the tapes and comments on them in his report:

Pageau: “Somebody hurt that baby, and we need to know who it was, and we’re going to find out who it was — either the hard way or the easy way.”

Truong: “I’m telling you everything.”

Pageau: “No, you’re not. Stop. Don’t lie to me.”

The detectives had no evidence. And the autopsy stated no cause of death. But the two detectives knowingly and deliberately told the teenager otherwise:

Pageau: “‘Cause that medical examiner told me that that baby was smothered. Does that change your story? We have scientific evidence that that boy was smothered to death.”

Pageau was not telling the truth, as he later testified. Lying to witnesses is often part of the playbook for detectives. But Superior Court Judge Janet Kenton-Walker would later rule that the detectives went beyond making knowingly false statements. She found they engaged in a pattern of deception, trickery and implied promises targeting “a frightened, meek, emotionally compromised teenager who never understood the implications of her statements.”

-Sue Luttner

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

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A Critical Look at a Key Witness

Photo by Cheryl Havared Harrell

Photo by Cheryl Havard Harrell

The case of Jeffrey Havard in Mississippi could be the tip of a wrongful-conviction iceberg, according to an excellent in-depth report by Radley Balko at the Huffington Post.

Havard has been on death row since 2002, convicted of murdering the 6-month-old daughter of his girl friend. Havard said he was lifting the little girl from the tub after a bath when she slipped from his hands, hitting her head on the toilet as she fell. Private medical examiner Dr. Steven Hayne, however, concluded the girl had died of shaken baby syndrome. The Mississippi Innocence Project has been fighting the conviction.

The reporter calls SBS “a diagnosis that comes with the implication that the last person to be alone with the child was the one who killed her,” observing:

“Because the symptoms can only be produced by violent shaking, the diagnosis also comes with a built-in indictment of the suspect’s state of mind. It’s a diagnosis that does much of the prosecutor’s work for him.”

Balko has written about Hayne several times over the past decade, as the medical examiner has become more controversial. Hayne has apparently been the favorite pathologist of Mississippi prosecutors for years, reliably providing autopsy reports and testimony that work in the courtroom. New information about Hayne is now available—ironically, through the discovery phase of a defamation suit Hayne pressed against the Missippi Innocence Project after they started questioning his work. Balko writes:

“What they’ve found since implicates not only Hayne, but a host of police officials, prosecutors, even judges who knew Hayne was deficient and offering dubious testimony, but did nothing to stop it. ‘We’ve known for a while that there was a problem here,’ says Tucker Carrington, the director of the project. ‘But I really had no concept of the depth and breadth of the malfeasance. This isn’t just Hayne. It’s … well, it’s almost everybody. The state has known all along that it was pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes.'”

According to Balko, Hayne was already under a serious cloud at the time of Havard’s trial, yet the court refused Havard the money to pay for a second opinion. The story is astonishing, and I recommend reading it:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/radley-balko/steven-hayne-jeffrey-havard_b_2213976.html

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Another SBS Tragedy, Reflected and Amplified

I want to cry. I want to scream.

The November 26 issue of The New Yorker features a disturbing essay by a young man still reeling from the shock he faced in 2007, when his mother was convicted of shaking an infant she’d been babysitting. Victor Zapana would like to believe his mother is innocent, it seems, but he leans toward guilt.

According to the article, Zapana is the only child of a singular marriage: His father emigrated to the U.S. from Peru in the 1980s and joined the military as a route to citizenship. He met his wife, the author’s mother, while on a tour of duty in South Korea. His native language is Spanish, hers is Korean, and the couple communicates with each other in imperfect English—as their son describes it, “half thoughts, mangled clichés, fragments lacking prepositions.”

In March of 1999, when Victor Zapana was nine years old, his mother was caring for an eight-month-old baby in their home, a job she’d had for five months. She said the boy’s left hand started to shake, as if he was having a seizure, and she called the child’s mother to come pick him up and take him to the hospital. The boy was, indeed, seizing, and the incident left with him permanent and profound brain damage. Doctors diagnosed shaken baby syndrome.

Zapana was on a field trip with his fourth-grade class that afternoon. He claims no memory of sitting at the police station later that night, reportedly in tears, while police questioned his mother. The trial was delayed eight years for various reasons—including his father’s deployment to Iraq—and during the interval, Zapana’s parents didn’t tell him about the pending charges. He learned about the trial only after his mother had been found guilty and remanded to custody. He writes of those first conversations with his parents, in which his father tried to explain the unexplainable:

“Mom has lost a criminal case,” he said, “She’s going to jail.”

What criminal case?

“Mom didn’t want to make you worried,” Papá said. “She wanted to protect you. Everything is going to be all right.”

The verdict made no sense, Papá continued. She had told him she didn’t do it. He knew she didn’t do  it. Calling collect from Rikers a few days later, my mother told me, sobbing, that she was innocent. Feigning composure, I told her that I loved her and hoped to see her soon. I couldn’t bear to say that I didn’t believe her. The question of her guilt was bound up for me in a larger betrayal:  the very fact that the trial was taking place had been kept from me. Maybe she’d wanted to protect me, but it felt like an act of deception, a family conspiracy. How could I believe her?

After a few years, he writes, “I began to feel that I wasn’t being fair to my mother…. I hadn’t seen what happened. I’d read only the news stories and blog posts, and I hadn’t spent much time even with these:  looking at them made me physically sick.”

A college student at that point, he started reading the court documents and trial transcripts, and was disappointed to find nothing that he thought definitively proved his mother either guilty or innocent. The prosecution had called to the stand a series of medical experts who agreed that the child must have been shaken, immediately before the seizures started. After taking out a second mortgage to pay for legal fees, Zapana’s father could afford to hire one pediatric neurologist, who testified that the assault could have occurred before the child was in Ms. Zapana’s care. The expert had reached his conclusions based on a single CAT scan, however, and had reviewed neither the follow-up MRI nor the medical records, and the prosecution easily undermined his credibility on cross-examination.

Zapana also read about child-care provider Audrey Edmunds, freed in 2008 after the Wisconsin Innocence Project took up her case. The appeal was based on new evidence in support of the “lucid interval,” the same defense his mother’s attorney had used, unsuccessfully. Zapana learned that other Innocence Projects across the country were taking on shaken baby cases, but he remained unconvinced, writing,”Still, the new research only opens possibilities. It might establish reasonable doubt, but for a son craving certainty it proves neither guilt nor innocence.”

Zapana’s  mother is getting out early next year, and has instructed his father to sell their house:  She wants to start a new life.

“I wish I could move on as well,” Zapana writes, “but reading the testimony has forced me to recognize that I may  never know what happend on March 3, 1999…. Occasionally, I consider the possibility that [my mother] was wronged.”

My heart breaks for everyone in this story:  The author, who came of age under a looming cloud he must have felt but knew nothing about; his mother, who I’m guessing believed she would be found innocent, and who I hope doesn’t read her son’s essay; the author’s father, a military veteran who’s holding it together, not easily but apparently without complaint; the disabled child and his family, whose chances for normal lives have all been lost, and their hearts embittered by what could easily be a misdiagnosis.

The essay doesn’t offer many medical details, mentioning only bleeding and swelling of the brain and “massive” retinal hemorrhages. I conclude that this shaking diagnosis was based entirely on the brain injury, with  no bruising, fractures, grip marks, or other signs of assault—exactly the kind of troubling shaken baby conviction that Professor Deborah Tuerkheimer was writing about in her 2009 New York Times op ed piece, Anatomy of a Misdiagnosis.

I’m hoping the author keeps researching. It doesn’t sound like he’s read Tuerkheimer’s law-review articles on the subject, such as  The Next Innocence Project:  Shaken Baby Syndrome and the Criminal Courts. Maybe he will find the profile of Dr. John Plunkett in Minnesota Medicine and the analysis of shaken baby syndrome soon to be published in the Houston Journal of Health Law and Policy, now available at this link: Shaken Baby Syndrome, Abusive Head Trauma, and Actual Innocence:  Getting It Right.

Mostly I  hope his family has the chance to heal from the shattering of faith they’ve suffered, at the hands of sincere physicians and prosecutors who have been trained with a widely accepted but inaccurate model of a complex physiological condition.

-Sue Luttner

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

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Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, Innocence Network, Innocence Project, SBS, shaken baby syndrome, Victor Zapana, Yoon Zapana

Communication, and Miscommunication, in the Courtroom

A courthouse in New Mexico.

Three legal developments this week illustrate that the steady push against unfounded diagnoses of shaken baby syndrome is having its effect.

A Grand Jury Listens in New Mexico

A grand jury in Taos has declined to charge a young father with the shaking death of his son, after hearings that included testimony by emergency physician Dr. Steven Gabaeff, an outspoken critic of shaken baby syndrome theory.

Reporter Chandra Johnson’s first-rate article in The Taos News implies that this was a triad-only case with complicating factors. The child was only three weeks old, and the parents had taken him to the doctor not long before his melt-down because he was congested and was having trouble breathing. On the day of the incident, the father reported, he was again having breathing trouble, with “not much of an appetite.”

Ms. Johnson quotes defense attorney John Day in the fourth paragraph:

“In recent years, the whole shaken baby theory has come under fire as misguided and wrong,” Day said in a phone interview Tuesday (Sept. 4). “There are a combination of relatively normal illnesses that could have caused brain swelling that put pressure on the retinal tissue.”

Montana Innocence Project Steps Up

In Montana, meanwhile, the Innocence Project has filed an appeal on behalf of Robert J. Wilkes, convicted of killing his 3 1/2-month-old son in 2008. The case against Wilkes rested on two presumptions:

  • his son’s brain injury was the result of abuse, and
  • the abuse must have happend in the few minutes between Wilkes’ feeeding the boy a bottle while visiting with the babysitter, who was also a neighbor, and the child’s meltdown soon after the father and son arrived home.

According to Gwen Florio’s refreshingly thoughtful article in the Missoulian, the appeal argues both that Wilkes received ineffective assistance of counsel and that new evidence shows his son suffered from a rare and deadly liver disorder. The coverage quotes the Innocence Project’s appeal:

“Over the past decade, opposition to SBS (shaken baby syndrome) has grown from a trickle to a virtual avalanche.”

Readers of this blog are likely to endorse the author’s final paragraph, about her talk with Montana Innocence Project executive director Jessie McQuillan, who “said she’d like to see Wilkes’ case added to the national conversation on the issue.”

Canadian Judge Blasts Reid Technique

Provincial Court Judge Michael Dinkel in Alberta has issued an opinion that both dismissed aggravated assault charges against day-care operator Christa Lynn Chapel and blasted the Reid Technique, an interrogation protocol used routinely by police investigators.

Denkel’s decision discarded Chapel’s confession to inflicting head injury on a child, which was delivered after eight hours of interrogation by officers the judge described as “a desperate investigative team that was bent on extracting a confession at any cost.”

Reporter Douglas Quan’s well-researched piece in The Calgary Herald quotes the judge’s opinion at length, including this statement:

“I denounce the use of this technique in the strongest terms possible and find that its use can lead to overwhelmingly oppressive situations that can render false confessions and cause innocent people to be wrongfully imprisoned.”

If you missed the post last winter about the interrogation that led to a dubious confession by teenager Nga Truang, you can see it here.

Not Everybody Listens Carefully

The Columbia Missourian ran a poignant story last week about a young father taking a plea bargain. He originally reported that his daughter had fallen out of her crib, and that he had shaken her to see if he could rouse her.  The doctors insisted the shaking had been violent, and the police heard a confession.

While accepting the father’s guilty plea on an assault charge, the judge asked the young man if he knew what he had done wrong, and the father said something very much like, “I guess that would be the shaking part.”

Side note: The National Institutes of Health infant CPR advice sheet begins its list of first aid steps with, “1.  Check for alertness. Shake or tap the infant gently.”

This story was but is no longer on line at http://www.columbiamissourian.com/stories/2012/09/05/man-pleads-guilty-assault-shaking-baby/

Finally, a tragic young mother in Virginia pled to charges of child neglect, again after changing her initial story under further questioning. Astonishingly, she confessed to interrogators that she had shaken her son, but the autopsy showed no signs of shaken baby syndrome.

Reporter Amber Lester Kennedy, understandably, I admit, treated the abuse as a given in her article in the Williamburg Yorktown Daily.

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Filed under Damian Stow, Innocence Network, Innocence Project, parents accused, Reid Technique, Robert J. Wilkes, Sabrina A. Battad, Sabrina Battad