Old Theories Die Hard

The Wrongful Convictions blog has pointed out a careful and well-researched article by Michael Barajas at the San Antonio Current, featuring four women found guilty in 1997 and 1998 of aggravated sexual assault on two sisters, 7 and 9 years old at the time. During a week-long visit with their aunt, prosecutors said, in between trips to the pool and to Walmart, the girls had been held down by the women and raped repeatedly with small objects: syringes, vials of white powder, a gun.

Two years ago the Innocence Project of Texas took up the cases of the “San Antonio Four,” a group of friends who have maintained their innocence throughout long prison terms. One of the presumed victims, now an adult, has recanted her tale, which she says was coerced by her father after the visit.

Dr. Nancy Kellogg, head of the child-abuse unit at the Univeristy of Texas Health Science Center, testified during the trials that the thickness of the sisters’ hymens was a sign of trauma, and that reddening of the younger girl’s hymen was evidence of assault and a white line on the older girl’s was a scar. While child-abuse experts once taught that such findings resulted from sexual encounters, by the late 1990s methodical clinical examinations had revealed that normal hymens come in all shapes and sizes, with features that include streaks, fringes, bumps, and even perforations. The findings listed in Kellogg’s reports  are now considered “normal,” as they were by most experts at the time of the trial.

Outside the jury’s hearing, Dr. Kellogg had also testified that the unusual situation of multiple female perpetrators made her think it was a case of Satanic ritual abuse. Like Dr. Kellogg’s opinions on pre-adolescent genitalia, belief in child sexual abuse by Satanic cults had also been discredited by 1997:  In 1991, FBI special agent Kenneth Lanning published a landmark statement in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect, in which he reflected on eight years of looking unsuccessfully for evidence of the bloody rituals commonly reported in cult-abuse cases. Lanning’s objection was that child sexual abuse is a real problem, and blaming it on elusive cults wastes resources and impedes the credibility of the child-protection movement.  For my own research into this arena, see chapter 3 of my upcoming book.

Dr. Kellog was and is an active and respected member of the child-protection community, as chronicled on her UT faculty web profile. She was the lead author on the 2007 clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect, “Evaluation of Suspected Child Physical Abuse,” published in the journal Pediatrics and quoted regularly. I’m thinking it’s a safe bet that she had read Lanning’s work at the time of her 1997 testimony, and I conclude she had not yet abandoned her faith in the reality of Satanic ritual abuse.

Looking for the silver lining in all this, I propose that the same reluctance to change one’s mind is at work in the shaken baby syndrome debacle. In the 1980s, a wave of pre-school teachers and other caretakers went to jail based on bizarre and lurid tales of cult abuse, and uncounted pre-schools simply closed as the witch hunts spread. Now the Innocence Project of Texas is revisiting one of the last convictions based on medical and social beliefs that were accepted at the time but have since been abandoned. I fear that the misconceptions about shaken baby syndrome will be harder to overcome, both because the concept is more plausible than human sacrifices in secret underground tunnels and because the convictions have been going on for so long that the theory seems to its adherents to have been proven.

The good news since the 1980s is two-fold:  First, there is an Innocence Project of Texas willing to re-open these cases in San Antonio, which, like shaken baby prosecutions, hinged on sincere but unproven medical opinion. Second, the community of child-protection experts has changed course in the past, even after sending people to prison on the basis of accepted but flawed common knowledge.

It won’t be easy, but I’m hoping they can do it again.

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

-Sue Luttner


Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, SBS, shaken baby syndrome

11 responses to “Old Theories Die Hard

  1. Grandma

    My grandson was 3 weeks old, had not had any vaccinations and had extensive brain damage to both the front and back of his brain, plus a right parietal skull fracture. Please make a pathetic attempt to explain that away. Also please explain away all the CONFESSIONS! You people are disgusting.

    • Please accept my condolences. I am glad to read in another comment that your grandson survived. My best wishes to you all.

      A skull fracture implies battering, however, a well-established cause of the injuries that are commonly attributed to shaking when there is no evidence of impact.

  2. Pingback: Wrongful Conviction and Imprisonment | i has a blarrrrrrrrggg.

  3. For more information on the “San Antonio Four” case, see the website of the National Center for Reason and Justice, http://www.ncrj.org. You will be equally appalled by the other cases highlighted there. I am on the board of the NCRJ. –Mark Pendergrast

  4. Hey Sue, compelling argument for being more careful of “evidence” presented for proof of SBS. Well written.

  5. Pingback: SBS – Shaken Baby Syndrome. Politics and “Religion” vs. New Science | Wrongful Convictions Blog

  6. John Fryer

    Hi Not too sure on this one.

    Dr Kellogg has tried by her admission over 10 000 child abuse cases.

    This works out at more than one child abuse case a day. Ignoring weekends and holidays which might put the case load at two per day?

    So my first question would be how effective is this and how sure can we be of both guilt if guilty or of innocence if innocent.

    I have spent over five years at an amateur level on just one case and even with all the information the case has sometimes not been clear as to the guilt and / or as to the cause if the case study was innocent.

    What I do see is professional arrogance and often blind belief that every case is in fact abuse. In fact the real cases might be about one in five of the total cases. I have no evidence that Dr Kellogg is anything but highly professional but there are rogue doctors a plenty making huge sums of money by convicting anyone and everyone. Look for example at the history of Roy Meadows.

    What is often the case is that missed opportunities to save lives and spare children from harm occurs time after time. I did note this case which horrified me deeply.


    Here the authorites refused to look at a case which seemed clear cut and could have resulted in the child Nicholas being alive today. This is exactly the case that makes me so, so, so mad at authorities.

    The other thing perhaps worse is the child abuse doctors used by Big pHARMa to cover up for example vaccine adverse effects.

    Putting these two together we might see that medical care, social care and related expertise work very much against families that are loving and benefit those families that are wicked.

    Coming back to the case in the article I would like more information as to why the four women got involved and whether they are still in prison and what those people who falsely got them there are doing about their mistake? Or is it a case of putting the guilty in prison is good but so much better to get the innocent behind bars?

    • Sorry, John, I should have clarified: One of the defendants is the aunt of the two girls. The other three women are her friends.

    • Beverly E.

      I, too, am in a situation such as this case and for the last 28 years. Everybody else cases keep by-passing our case, in which, we are having difficulty seeking justice…and this is a simple case. My father was convicted for having sexually assaulted me, but he did not do it. This took place in Bell County, Killeen, Texas, which is notorious for child sex abuse cases. I hate to say this, but it looks like they are winning this case, we are unable to find help anywhere…It has been 28 years, since the mid-1980’s. Shame…..

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