Two different judges in two separate cases have looked carefully at the facts in front of them and found the kind of fundamental problems that plague shaken baby prosecutions.
In October, District Court Judge John Telleen in Scott County, Iowa, addressed an issue I’ve been wanting someone in authority to notice for years now, the implications of a pre-existing subdural hematoma. Judge Telleen’s oral decision declaring an accused father not guilty included this observation:
All of the State’s evidence or the vast majority of it related to the 12 hours before admission on November 5. Frankly, I believe it’s clear that nothing happened on or about November 4 or November 5 that could possibly have caused a subacute subdural hematoma that had been in existence from anywhere from three days to ten days prior to that.
Like Judge Matthew Kennelly following the Del Prete hearings, Judge Telleen was left doubting both shaking theory and its application to the case at hand:
[I]t is my understanding from the testimony that I found credible that there are no scientific studies that support or document that shaking causes brain hematoma or brain bleeds…
[F]rankly I have some serious doubt whether a crime was even committed here much less that the defendant did it.
The judge noted that the infant, only three weeks old when clear neurological symptoms emerged, had been sick since birth, and he chided the child abuse pediatrician for making the “default diagnosis” of abuse without doing a full work-up to eliminate metabolic or bleeding disorders, or even a vitamin D deficiency, as the child had healing fractures that could possibly, but not definitively, be dated back to birth
The state’s ophthalmologist had apparently testified that he couldn’t be certain the child was abused, and conceded that a sharp rise in intracranial pressure (ICP) could account for the retinal hemorrhages. Judge Telleen said:
Dr. L was a credible witness. He was a straight shooter. He said he couldn’t place it beyond 51 percent, his opinion that he thought it was caused by non-accidental trauma. However, he freely acknowledged as an honest witness that increased intracranial pressure can cause retinal hemorrhage, he couldn’t rule that out.
There seems to have been no press coverage of the innocent verdict, so there was never any public correction to the initial news stories, which quoted an affidavit that the father had “engaged in three or more acts of child endangerment, including at least one act that resulted in serious injury.”
December update: The local paper has now covered the decision, at http://www.press-citizen.com/story/news/2014/12/24/uihc-shaken-baby/20858227/
Defense attorney Kent Simmons said his client turned down a plea agreement that would have avoided jail time, because he did not want to admit to doing something he didn’t do. “I told my client he was a very brave man,” Simmons said. “And Judge Telleen is an honest, bright, and fair jurist.”
And I’ve just learned about a decision this past spring in Oregon, where Appeals Court Judge Angel Lopez affirmed a trial court’s decision barring a confession from the courtroom, concluding that the father’s statement was made involuntarily. After hours of taped interrogation that focused on his daughter’s injuries, the detectives had turned off the recorder for 25 minutes and then turned it back on to capture the disputed confession. The published decision includes this touching quote from the trial judge:
Here was a man who had a baby in the hospital for shaken baby syndrome or some traumatic issue. Several times during the discussion with him he was asked to tell the truth because that would predicate what the treatment would be for the baby. Implicit in that is if he didn’t, the baby was going to end up worse off.
I see that as compelling. I see the going back and forth by saying—minimizing to the defendant what’s going to happen to him if he [comes] clean and he confesses. I believe that the statements, given these facts and circumstances, were involuntarily made, and that’s based on the totality of circumstances. There’s no one thing that jumps out at me but there are a lot of things that together tell me that his will was overborne by two detectives in that hospital room over two days.
With supporting quotes from the interrogation transcripts, Judge Lopez added his own analysis:
Having made clear that G had serious medical issues that could be ameliorated by a confession—an assertion that, as a matter of medical fact, is without any support in the record—the officers also appealed to defendant’s paternal responsibilities, his religion, stated that defendant was the only one who could help G, and stated, in effect, that the way to provide that help was to tell the officers that he had accidentally shaken her.
I am always glad when someone in a position of authority stops to consider what it must be like for an accused parent, frantic with worry for their child, to be harangued by detectives intent on extracting a confession.