As the recent Russ Van Vleck case illustrates, SBS defendants can find exoneration in court, at least sometimes.
San Diego attorney Toni Blake, a consultant on pediatric head-injury cases, says the numbers are hard to pin down. “If you consider ‘win’ no time in jail for the defendant,” she said in an interview last year, “we have a 15 to 17 percent win rate.” That’s fewer than one in five—among defendants with attorneys astute enough to contact Toni Blake.
Which most do not. I received an email some days ago from a professional who’d been trying to help David Tatara, convicted last month of second-degree murder in the death of his girlfriend’s toddler. Reflecting on the trial, State of Florida vs. David Tatara, my correspondent wrote:
Chess with a Handicap
Even though the evidence against him is circumstantial, and sufficient reasonable doubt has been raised . . . Mr. Tatara may well spend the rest of his life in prison, found guilty of murder by a jury of his peers, for a crime he may not have committed.
The prosecution was led by a State Attorney with considerable legal experience and obvious expertise in child abuse. He was meticulously organized and was assisted by a highly competent co-counsel and a team of support staff. Over two and a half days, he brought through police officers; paramedics; a crime scene investigator; two engineers; a child protection officer; two local doctors, including the treating ER physician; a child abuse nurse; and the mother of the deceased infant. The last prosecution witness was Dr. Randall Alexander, Medical Director of the Statewide Child Protection Program and a charismatic expert on infant head injury—well chosen, I thought, as the closer.
Mr. Tatara, an electrician by trade, was represented by a defense team of one: a small-town attorney with seemingly little trial experience and even less preparation. The attorney had found two expert witnesses, both restrained by budget. The defense was able to start and finish its case one morning before lunch.
Whichever way you measure it—time before the court or number of witnesses, don’t even consider hours of preparation—the prosecution outweighed the defense by a ratio of five to one. It would be like trying to play a game of chess against a highly experienced and accomplished chess master, when you’re equipped with one fifth the pieces and a handicapped king. It was not surprising that this jury, like so many, found in favor of the prosecution, which had left a far deeper impression.
Mr. Tatara is a hard-working blue-collar employee who, as best he could, was providing for his girlfriend and her two children from a previous marriage. The one thing that the defendant is clearly guilty of is believing that he could afford an adequate defense on an electrician’s paycheck.
Note that this case included a skull fracture and was diagnosed AHT, not SBS. Mr. Tatara called 911 after what he said was an accident involving a playpen and a tile floor. For the article that ran after his conviction, see Boyfriend Guilty.