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.
*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.