The November 26 issue of The New Yorker features a disturbing essay by a young man still reeling from the shock he faced in 2007, when his mother was convicted of shaking an infant she’d been babysitting. Victor Zapana would like to believe his mother is innocent, it seems, but he leans toward guilt.
According to the article, Zapana is the only child of a singular marriage: His father emigrated to the U.S. from Peru in the 1980s and joined the military as a route to citizenship. He met his wife, the author’s mother, while on a tour of duty in South Korea. His native language is Spanish, hers is Korean, and the couple communicates with each other in imperfect English—as their son describes it, “half thoughts, mangled clichés, fragments lacking prepositions.”
In March of 1999, when Victor Zapana was nine years old, his mother was caring for an eight-month-old baby in their home, a job she’d had for five months. She said the boy’s left hand started to shake, as if he was having a seizure, and she called the child’s mother to come pick him up and take him to the hospital. The boy was, indeed, seizing, and the incident left with him permanent and profound brain damage. Doctors diagnosed shaken baby syndrome.
Zapana was on a field trip with his fourth-grade class that afternoon. He claims no memory of sitting at the police station later that night, reportedly in tears, while police questioned his mother. The trial was delayed eight years for various reasons—including his father’s deployment to Iraq—and during the interval, Zapana’s parents didn’t tell him about the pending charges. He learned about the trial only after his mother had been found guilty and remanded to custody. He writes of those first conversations with his parents, in which his father tried to explain the unexplainable:
“Mom has lost a criminal case,” he said, “She’s going to jail.”
What criminal case?
“Mom didn’t want to make you worried,” Papá said. “She wanted to protect you. Everything is going to be all right.”
The verdict made no sense, Papá continued. She had told him she didn’t do it. He knew she didn’t do it. Calling collect from Rikers a few days later, my mother told me, sobbing, that she was innocent. Feigning composure, I told her that I loved her and hoped to see her soon. I couldn’t bear to say that I didn’t believe her. The question of her guilt was bound up for me in a larger betrayal: the very fact that the trial was taking place had been kept from me. Maybe she’d wanted to protect me, but it felt like an act of deception, a family conspiracy. How could I believe her?
After a few years, he writes, “I began to feel that I wasn’t being fair to my mother…. I hadn’t seen what happened. I’d read only the news stories and blog posts, and I hadn’t spent much time even with these: looking at them made me physically sick.”
A college student at that point, he started reading the court documents and trial transcripts, and was disappointed to find nothing that he thought definitively proved his mother either guilty or innocent. The prosecution had called to the stand a series of medical experts who agreed that the child must have been shaken, immediately before the seizures started. After taking out a second mortgage to pay for legal fees, Zapana’s father could afford to hire one pediatric neurologist, who testified that the assault could have occurred before the child was in Ms. Zapana’s care. The expert had reached his conclusions based on a single CAT scan, however, and had reviewed neither the follow-up MRI nor the medical records, and the prosecution easily undermined his credibility on cross-examination.
Zapana also read about child-care provider Audrey Edmunds, freed in 2008 after the Wisconsin Innocence Project took up her case. The appeal was based on new evidence in support of the “lucid interval,” the same defense his mother’s attorney had used, unsuccessfully. Zapana learned that other Innocence Projects across the country were taking on shaken baby cases, but he remained unconvinced, writing,”Still, the new research only opens possibilities. It might establish reasonable doubt, but for a son craving certainty it proves neither guilt nor innocence.”
Zapana’s mother is getting out early next year, and has instructed his father to sell their house: She wants to start a new life.
“I wish I could move on as well,” Zapana writes, “but reading the testimony has forced me to recognize that I may never know what happend on March 3, 1999…. Occasionally, I consider the possibility that [my mother] was wronged.”
My heart breaks for everyone in this story: The author, who came of age under a looming cloud he must have felt but knew nothing about; his mother, who I’m guessing believed she would be found innocent, and who I hope doesn’t read her son’s essay; the author’s father, a military veteran who’s holding it together, not easily but apparently without complaint; the disabled child and his family, whose chances for normal lives have all been lost, and their hearts embittered by what could easily be a misdiagnosis.
The essay doesn’t offer many medical details, mentioning only bleeding and swelling of the brain and “massive” retinal hemorrhages. I conclude that this shaking diagnosis was based entirely on the brain injury, with no bruising, fractures, grip marks, or other signs of assault—exactly the kind of troubling shaken baby conviction that Professor Deborah Tuerkheimer was writing about in her 2009 New York Times op ed piece, Anatomy of a Misdiagnosis.
I’m hoping the author keeps researching. It doesn’t sound like he’s read Tuerkheimer’s law-review articles on the subject, such as The Next Innocence Project: Shaken Baby Syndrome and the Criminal Courts. Maybe he will find the profile of Dr. John Plunkett in Minnesota Medicine and the analysis of shaken baby syndrome soon to be published in the Houston Journal of Health Law and Policy, now available at this link: Shaken Baby Syndrome, Abusive Head Trauma, and Actual Innocence: Getting It Right.
Mostly I hope his family has the chance to heal from the shattering of faith they’ve suffered, at the hands of sincere physicians and prosecutors who have been trained with a widely accepted but inaccurate model of a complex physiological condition.
If you are not familiar with the specifics of the shaken baby debate, please see the home page of this blog site.