After four years of hard work by a team of pro bono attorneys and physicians, the state of Arizona agreed last week to vacate the second-degree murder conviction of Drayton Witt, a young father whose 5-month-old son Steven had suffered a lifetime of medical problems before his final, catastrophic seizure in June of 2000.
Witt’s case was way beyond a triad-only conviction: Not only did the autopsy reveal no abrasions, grip marks, fractures, or other signs of assault, but the child had been born in respiratory and neurological distress, with the umbilical cord wrapped tightly around his neck, followed by a relentless series of infections, fevers, and bouts of vomiting. A month before his meltdown, Steven spent 6 days in the hospital because of seizures that were never explained, and incompletely controlled with medication.
Prosecution doctors at Witt’s 2002 trial rejected the importance of Steven’s medical history, however, and testified that the presence of the triad proved he had been shaken immediately before he fell unconscious while in the care of his father.
Last year the Arizona Justice Project showed Steven’s medical records to other experts,* who unanimously rejected the shaking diagnosis. Several of them independently noted evidence of venous thrombosis.
Then the attorneys showed these reports to the medical examiner who conducted the original autopsy, and asked him to reconsider his 2002 testimony. In a declaration submitted in February of 2012, Dr. A.L. Mosley noted that medical thinking has changed about the significance of the triad and concluded:
Steven had a complicated medical history, including unexplained neurological problems. He had no outward signs of abuse. If I were to testify today, I would state that I believe Steven’s death was likely the result of a natural disease process, not SBS.
Prosecutors could still recharge Witt, but he has been released from prison for now, with no bail, house arrest, or electronic monitoring.
The vacation of Witt’s conviction joins a handful of other victories for the doctors and lawyers who are fighting for justice in SBS cases, beginning with the reversal of the Audrey Edmunds conviction in 2008 and including the commutation of Shirley Smith’s sentence earlier this year. Witt’s case was pressed by the Arizona Justice Project, a member chapter of the Innocence Network, which has started looking at child-death cases within the past few years. I look forward to more successes.
Emily Bazelon published this article in Slate about Drayton Witt while the case was still under appeal. The Wrongful Convictions Blog posted this item that names the attorneys.
*Forensic pathologist Dr. John Plunkett, pediatric radiologist Dr. Patrick Barnes, neuropathologist Dr. Waney Squier, pediatric opthalmologist Dr. Horace Gardner, biomechanic John Lloyd, PhD, and retired pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. A. Norman Guthkelch, the first person to suggest in writing that shaking an infant could produce subdural hematoma, in a 1971 article in the British Medical Journal. The Witt case is the one Dr. Guthkelch was talking about in the interview on NPR a year ago, when he said, “I wouldn’t hang a cat on the evidence of shaking as presented.”
If you are not familiar with the debate surrounding shaken baby syndrome, please see the home page of this site.
18 responses to “Arizona Father Freed: Dawn of a Sunnier Era?”
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This is heart-breaking! Innocent people hurt. Our baby’s weight/growth chart showed a sudden stoppage in weight gain right after his 2-month vaccines and a sudden quickening again of his weight gain right after his 4-month vaccines. But while he then quickly increased in weight, his length did not change at all, so he was getting bloated. It was only 3 weeks after his 4-month vaccines that he had the trouble breathing and was found at the hospital to have a subdural hematoma. But this hematoma had a membrane around it. So it had been slowly developing for at least a week, if not longer. His chest X-rays showed patchiness. His white blood cell count was 2.5 times normal, indicating infection. Yet the judge determined that our baby was shaken and has still not returned him to us!
My belief is that if we chart the time between vaccines and trouble breathing, and look at weight/height charts in that time period, we will see a pattern. Let’s collect information, both that which fits the pattern and that which does not. If we get a large enough sampling, and if we show the pattern, it will give scientifically honest people something to consider.
I’m serious about this data collection. If you have these data, please forward the info to me and we’ll create a report about it.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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I watched as the evil of Maricopa County, AZ. gamed in the court room and convicted my son to life for SBS and Blunt Head Trauma. No evidence of any trauma! His first appeal’s just denied. Northern Arizona Innocence Project has taken my son- Justin Sobolik’s case. But not untill appeal’s are exhausted! I need to call to find out how many appeal’s. How can we change this and have someone to bat for us sooner?! Justin has been locked in max security since 2007, for trying to save his girl friends baby! WE need help, is anyone out there?
Broken Hearted, Tammy
I’m so sorry to hear of your son’s tragic circumstance. Unfortunately all I can do is chronicle the insanity. I do suggest you contact the Falsely Accused of SBS support group, referenced on the Resources page of this blog. I’m on the road right now but will email you when I’m back at my computer. Best wishes.
Sue, Thank You for your respons. I’ll look for the support group.
I knew your son in junior high and found out through a friend about his arrest and situation. What’s going on with him now? Praying for you and him. I’d like to write to him.
I’ll forward your note to Tammy and send you a private email with Justin’s mailing address. Thanks for reaching out. -Sue
Thank you Sue!!
Hi Tammy my name is Stacy I don’t know if you remember me but I was really good friends with Justin when we were in 9th grade at shepherd. I feel so terrible about what you all are going through and always wondered what had happened with Justin. I’d you could tell me what I can do to get on contact with him. Where to send a letter. Thank you and I’m very sorry for everything you’re going through
This is a great article, Sue! Love that quote at the bottom from Dr. Guthkelch: “I wouldn’t hang a cat on the evidence of shaking as presented.” Is there really anything else to say? My husband was accused in 2007 when we lost our little girl. Not once did any authority figure involved pause to wonder if perhaps what he said happened, actually happened…even though many doctors have since told me what he said could have caused her injuries. Why so quick to “want” it to be child abuse?
Thank you, Tonya, for staying in touch.
Once again people dont realize that vaccines are causing Most of these medical issues. Our children are riddled with health problems today. They continuously add vaccines to the schedule. The more vaccines, the more problems arise from it. They damage the immune system. They cause SIDS, SBS, AUTISM, ADHD, SEIZURES, ASTHMA and MANY MORE disabling conditions. They are the reason our MILITARY is coming back disabled and suicidal. It is a very UN-NATURAL medical procedure. There are thousands of parents and daycare workers in prison WRONGLY accused and convicted for this false diagnosis. Doctors arent that stupid. They have to cover it up cause its a HUGE money maker. How evil have they become….
I am very excited to see this case overturned, but it is bitter sweet for me. My husband has been locked up since 1999 with a life sentence. Our son was just as sick, 6-weeks premature, and 5-weeks old at his collapse. Our precious baby died in 2000 from the same problems his father saved him from in 1999. The same experts reviewed our case, found unanimously it was not abuse and the Tennessee courts still refuse to let him go. We are currently awaiting a decision from the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. Don’t get me wrong, every victory for one of these cases is celebrated because hopefully one day the entire diagnosis will be eliminated. Our children pay the biggest price. May God have mercy on the prosecutors and accusing doctors, for they know not what they do….
Thank you so much, Kaye, for your from-the-heart comment. Please accept my condolences on the compounded tragedy you and your husband are dealing with. How gracious of you to understand that your accusers are unaware of the harm they’re doing.
Best wishes on the appeal. Please stay in touch.
Wow, more progress. Kind of scary to think how eager to convict these juries must be.