Jury Frees Accused Father, and More

Richard Britts and his daughters-courtesy of Richard Britts

Richard Britts and his daughters
-courtesy of Richard Britts

Illinois father Richard Britts has been cleared of shaking accusations, two years after his younger daughter, three months old at the time, suffered a seizure while in his care. Jurors acquitted him earlier this month after hearing testimony from both prosecution doctors and forensic pathologist Dr. John Plunkett. The child seems to have fully recovered from the incident.

Reporter Patrick Yeagle’s touching and insightful treatment in the Illinois Times makes this observation: 

It’s the latest case calling into question “shaken baby syndrome” – a triad of symptoms that some doctors say can only be caused by violent shaking. Other doctors, however, say existing medical problems can cause the same symptoms, casting doubt on a diagnosis that has landed several people nationwide behind bars.

A Twin Case in Jersalem

A report in The Jersalem Post (“Israel’s best-selling English daily and most-read English website”) offers an unusual slant on a shaking diagnosis with this statement:

Shaken baby syndrome is an intermediate condition between an accident and physical abuse of children.

In the article’s focus case, a father is facing a manslaughter charge in the death of his 4-month-old son, who with his twin sister was rushed to the hospital in January with “internal injuries,” including bone fractures.

The news report explains the prosecution’s thinking:

The state said it will argue that the death was caused unintentionally, but that the father did intentionally commit acts of violence against the baby who died and that those acts of violence did cause the baby’s death, making an allegation of manslaughter appropriate.

A Successful Appeal

An appeals court in Florida has partially reversed a shaking conviction, ordering a new trial because the first judge had excluded biomechanical testimony. The published opinion focuses on what Florida law allows in the testimony of a biomechanics expert. The key paragraph opens:

Kieran Lloyd, who at 7 months eagerly provided data on repetitive bouncing motions by playing in a commercial jumping toy.

Florida courts have held that a biomechanics expert is not qualified to give a medical opinion regarding the extent of an injury. Stockwell v. Drake, 901 So. 2d 974, 976 (Fla. 4th DCA 2005); Mattek v. White, 695 So. 2d 942, 943 (Fla. 4th DCA 1997). However, it has been recognized that a biomechanics expert is qualified to offer an opinion as to causation if the mechanism of injury falls within the field of biomechanics. See Houghton v. Bond, 680 So. 2d 514, 521 (Fla. 1st DCA 1996) (holding that the defense’s biomechanics expert was qualified to testify that 90% of the plaintiff motorist’s injuries were caused by his hitting the dashboard as a result of his failure to wear a seatbelt because the expert was not offering a medical opinion based on brain anatomy and function); Behn v. State, 621 So. 2d 534, 536 (Fla. 1st DCA 1993) (recognizing that an expert in the field of biomechanics would be qualified to testify that a delay in an automobile accident would have altered the fatal consequences)..

The expert whose opinion was prohibited is biomechanic John Lloyd, PhD, whose most recent paper I described in this blog posting. The key paragraph of the opinion concludes:

In this case, Dr. Lloyd was not offering a medical opinion as to the extent of the victim’s brain injury, a matter which was not in dispute. Rather, based upon his biomechanical studies, he opined that (1) a child of the victim’s height and weight could have sustained similar brain injuries by falling out of a day bed; and (2) shaking alone could not have caused such injuries. We conclude Dr. Lloyd was qualified to offer these opinions as to causation because the mechanism of injury (falls and shaking) fell within the field of biomechanics

A Suicide Attempt

Finally, after a preliminary hearing that lasted four days, a California judge has ordered a foster father to stand trial for murder and child abuse in an especially murky case. The defendant called 911 in November of 2010 with a report that a baby was choking on milk. During interrogation later he said he had accidentally knocked the child from the table in his bouncy chair.

Vacaville Reporter Ryan Chalk summarized the medical testimony in a news story, no longer on line, in The Reporter:

Wednesday saw the conclusion of testimony from Dr. Michelle Jorden, a forensic neuropathologist.

Jorden testified that it was her opinion that Buddy had suffered a traumatic brain injury leading up to his choking episode.

“I think it’s a combination of shaking and impact,” Jorden testified as to the cause of the injuries.

And from another day’s coverage:

Dr. Rachel Gilgoff, a child abuse pediatrician, testified that “both sides of his brain were extremely compromised,” as tests revealed he was suffering from significant bleeding and swelling in the brain.

“His injury is extremely consistent with abusive head trauma, or shaken baby syndrome,” Gilgoff testified.

I’m guessing there was  no evidence of impact, because there’s none mentioned in the articles.

The defendant, Reginald Tanubagijo, attempted suicide at some point before the preliminary hearing, according to The Reporter:

Tanubagijo had already been arrested and released on bail, and during that time, Officer Michael Shephard responded to the Tanubagijo home for a report of a suicide attempt.

Shephard testified that he found Tanubagijo slumped over with a bloody towel over his arm and a very large laceration to his wrist.

Inside the kitchen, Shephard testified that he found a note that read, “I killed Buddy.”

Other notes found at the home read, “I did killed Buddy,” and “Tell the judge I did killed Buddy,” the officer further testified.

The child’s biological mother has filed a civil lawsuit charging negligence by the county and others who allowed the defendant to be a foster parent, the most recent coverage reports.

The unnecessary pain of it all makes me sad.

3 Comments

Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, Gregory Council, PhD, Richard Britts, SBS, shaken baby syndrome

3 responses to “Jury Frees Accused Father, and More

  1. Sue

    I was in the preliminary hearing. There was an impact a big bloody bruise on his forehead. Someone has their information wrong. And Michael Shepherds statement was lies also. The mans wife was at the house. And there was only 1 note. There has been so much obstruction of justice in this case. Tanubagijo dedicated his life to helping children. How sad people accuse the wrong ones that help kids. They should accuse the birth mother for being on heavy drugs with no prenatal care.

    • Thank you for the clarification from someone who knows. A forehead bruise is consistent with Mr. Tanubagijo’s statement that the child fell from the table in his bouncy chair. I don’t know why the doctors are so focused on shaking.

  2. Pingback: A Tough Decision, for Both Jury and Defendant | On SBS

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