After hours of deliberation, an Illinois jury convicted child care provider Cammie Kelly of manslaughter earlier this month but found her innocent of murder, in what reporter Patrick Yeagle of the Illinois Times called “an endorsement of shaken baby syndrome and a blow to the movement set on disproving the theory.”
Although disappointed at another conviction, I was pleased to see news coverage that recognizes a debate over shaken baby theory, and I was intrigued by an interview Yeagle gave last week with Rachel Otwell of NPR Illinois. Yeagle, who also wrote about the 2011 appeal on behalf of Pam Jacobazzi and the 2012 acquittal of Springfield father Richard Britts, summarized his observations for NPR:
“In every case I’ve ever covered, there have been three constants. One is that the child had previous medical issues. Two is that the child developed the triad of symptoms—the brain bleeding, brain swelling and bleeding of the retinas. And then three is that the last person to have been alone with the child is charged.”
Wondering if Yeagle had started questioning shaken baby theory, I contacted him. While not taking a position in the debate, he explained that he sees “no consensus” about shaken baby in the medical community, where most doctors seem to accept the common knowledge but others seem to be raising “some serious, unanswered questions” about the diagnosis. “Unfortunately,” he said, “the debate is being conducted in the courtroom, where people’s liberty and lives are at stake.”
This recent case offers a typical assortment of ambiguous elements that to my mind should have raised some doubt. Kelly, now 68 years old, had been running a licensed day care from her home since the mid-1990s without incident. As Yeagle’s early trial coverage explains, she sought help on a January evening in 2011, when an 11-month-old boy fell unconscious in her care just as she was getting him ready to be picked up. Coverage of the second day describes a video shown to the jury, part of Kelly’s interrogation two days after the incident, after Dr. Channing Petrak had diagnosed Kaiden Gullidge as a victim of abuse. Kelly had no lawyer present and had not been warned of her rights. From Yeagle’s narration of the video:
Before long, the detectives’ questions become confrontational…
The detectives work every angle repeatedly for an hour and 20 minutes, but Kelly continues adamantly denying that she or anyone else harmed the child.
“I didn’t willingly do it, I didn’t intentionally do it, and in my heart, I can’t see doing it,” she says.
One of the detectives tells Kelly, “He’s going to die,” in reference to Kaiden. Kelly lays her head on the table and sobs uncontrollably. Even after the detectives leave the room, she continues crying as she says, “I can’t hurt a child. I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I’d rather die than hurt a child.”
Sensing that Kelly isn’t going to admit to anything beyond shaking Kaiden to revive him, the officers return and one officer announces that they’re “at an impasse.” As Kelly gets up to leave for a doctor’s appointment, she begins to sob again, and the video ends.
According to the third day’s coverage, the little boy had been born six weeks early, and his head circumference had been increasing for some months before his collapse under Kelly’s care. At birth, his head circumference was below the median, but it was measured at the 80th percentile when he was 9 months old, and the morning before the incident, a nutritionist had measured it at the 98th percentile. Prosecution doctors, however, said his past medical history was unrelated to his collapse, which they attributed to abuse.
On the fourth day of trial, Yeagle’s coverage reports, the jury saw autopsy photos. Although the boy had arrived at the emergency room with no visible bruises or other external signs of assault, he had developed some bruising of unknown origin by the time of his death. From Yeagle’s coverage:
[Prosecutor Jeff] Cox showed the court a series of graphic photos from Kaiden Gullidge’s autopsy, depicting his scalp sliced apart and peeled back to expose interior bruising, his skull cut open to reveal blood pooling around his brain, and his eyes cut in half to show bleeding of the retinas. [Oregon medical examiner Dr. Daniel] Davis explained the significance of each photo to the jury and said they show evidence of blunt force trauma. He said his review of the autopsy photos, Kaiden’s other medical records, the police records and the video of police questioning Cammie Kelly led him to believe Kelly harmed the child by shaking him violently.
Later that same day, the pathologist who performed the autopsy, Dr. Scott Denton, testified that shaking could not have caused the findings, and that the child must have suffered an impact to the head. Again, the jury was subjected to autopsy photos that I think can’t have been as useful as they were inflammatory:
Under questioning by Sangamon County State’s Attorney John Milhiser, Denton walked the jury through his autopsy process and specific aspects of Kaiden’s autopsy. Milhiser showed the jury several graphic photos depicting Kaiden’s body during the autopsy, including more photos of the child’s scalp peeled back, his exposed brain both in and out of his skull, the “dura” layer covering his brain, his dissected eyes, a large clot removed from his brain cavity, and the child’s corpse with sutures from the organ harvesting process. Denton narrated the photos, pointing out evidence that he said pointed to blunt force trauma to the head as the cause of death.
On the fifth day of trial, Yeagle’s coverage reports, a series of defense experts disputed the shaking diagnosis, testifying not only that the child had died from a blood clot, not from abuse, but that his brain showed evidence of previous clots, beginning long before he was in Kelly’s care. They attributed the bruising found at autopsy to medical interventions at the hospital.
After hearing testimony from 23 people over 6 days, including 9 doctors for the prosecution and 3 for the defense, the jury rejected the murder charge but found Kelly guilty of involuntary manslaughter. The jury apparently struggled with their verdict, first sending out a note asking for a definition of “reasonable doubt,” which the judge was prohibited by Illinois law from providing, and a few hours later declaring that they could not reach a verdict. The judge instructed them to continue deliberating.
In his summary article after the verdict, Yeagle described Dr. Petrak as a “polarizing figure”:
Dr. Channing Petrak, medical director of the Pediatric Resource Center in Peoria, examined Kaiden on Jan. 19. She didn’t notice bruises on Kaiden until the autopsy after his death on Jan. 20, but her testimony at Kelly’s trial originally implied that she based her suspicion of abuse on bruises from her Jan. 19 examination. John Rogers, Kelly’s defense attorney, grilled Petrak about the inconsistency, using it to imply that she sees every case as abuse regardless of the evidence.
Petrak is a polarizing figure in the controversy over shaken baby syndrome. Her organization, which is part of the University of Illinois College of Medicine, examines children in cases where abuse is suspected. She’s seen by prosecutors as an impartial evaluator, but defense attorneys see Petrak as part of an industry that profits from indiscriminately labeling cases as abuse.
The article also relates that Kelly retained her composure when the verdict was announced, offering comfort to relatives who began to cry.
The judge revoked Kelly’s bail after the verdict, and so she was led away into custody by sheriff’s deputies. “She was not put in handcuffs, however,” Yeagle wrote, “likely because she walks hunched over with a cane due to arthritis.”
If you are not familiar with the debate surrounding shaken baby syndrome, please see the home page of this blog.
copyright 2015, Sue Luttner