The landscape in the shaken baby debate is shifting again, with a series of developments that have locked in gains, slowed losses, and even claimed new ground in the struggle against unproven science in the courtroom.
In New York state last week, an appeals court affirmed the 2014 reversal of the murder conviction of care provider René Bailey, who said she was out of the room when a little girl jumped or fell from a chair. Prosecution experts had testified, however, that only shaking could explain the brain findings, and that children don’t die from short falls. In his decision reversing the conviction, Judge James Piampiano accepted the argument by Bailey’s appeal attorneys that changes in medical thinking since her 2001 trial constituted new evidence.
Last week’s ruling rejected an appeal by the state, noting that “advancements in science and/or medicine may constitute newly discovered evidence” and explicitly mentioning the evolving SBS research. Coverage in the Democrat and Chronicle led with the optimistic proclamation:
“For the first time, a New York appellate court has ruled that evidence once used to convict people in shaken-baby cases may no longer be scientifically valid.”
That same evidence failed earlier this month to convince a South Dakota jury, which found Aaron Bruns innocent of murdering his 3-month-old son Levi in what appears to be a pure shaking case. Coverage in The Daily Republic offers this summary of the father’s report:
During the trial, Bruns said he thought Levi was choking, so he quickly picked him up and tipped him upside down to clear his airway. Five minutes later, according to Bruns, Levi turned pale, and his eyes rolled to the back of his head, leading Bruns to run him to a nearby hospital.
Other individual victories seem to have triggered a resurgence of press coverage highlighting the controversy. In Minnesota, for example, reporter Tom Lyden at Fox 9 pulled together a provocative treatment with the title “Critics, parents, question diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome,” featuring a local father acquitted at trial; a family whose own experts convinced the county to drop charges; and a mother now fighting the loss of her son. The treatment closes with a statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which persists in shifting the question from whether the brain findings prove abuse (No, they do not) to whether shaking is even dangerous (Yes, of course it is):
“There is no legitimate medical debate among the majority of practicing physicians as to the existence or validity of AHT/SBS… Claims that shaking is not dangerous to infants or children are not factual and are not supported by AAP policy, despite being proffered by a few expert witnesses in the courtroom.”
The assertions of the AAP notwithstanding, the real uncertainties about shaken baby theory were acknowledged this fall, briefly but officially, in a presidential report on forensic sciences in the courtroom, undertaken in the wake of the 2009 study that found “serious deficiencies” and called for “major reforms” of the nation’s forensic science system. The follow-up report, published this fall by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), notes that DNA evidence has disproved past forensic techniques like bite-mark matching and visual hair analysis, and it recommends strategies for bringing courtroom testimony in line with scientific knowledge. Footnote 15 cites an “urgent” need to examine shaken baby theory, which has not been addressed in past studies:
“PCAST notes that there are issues related to the scientific validity of other types of forensic evidence that are beyond the scope of this report but require urgent attention—including notably arson science and abusive head trauma commonly referred to as ‘Shaken Baby Syndrome.'”
For my posting on arson science, please see “Bad Science Goes Up in Smoke.”
All these developments come in the same season as the decision to reinstate Dr. Waney Squier’s right to practice medicine, and the release of a literature review by a panel of Swedish scientists who concluded that shaken baby theory has not been proven, both of which have generated international news coverage. New Scientist, for example, published a news report about the Swedish study, with a sidebar on Dr. Squier’s case and a promo that nailed the character of the debate, calling it “toxic and polarised.”
The ripples are still spreading in the wake of Dr. Squier’s reinstatement. Even non-subscribers can give a thumbs-up to the letters to the BMJ in support of her, submitted by Michael Birnbaum, QC, and, further down the page, Dr. Jennian Geddes. I’m told our clicks will help the editors understand the scope of the problem. (If you haven’t done so yet, you can also go give a thumbs-up to the earlier letters from a group of more than 250 professionals and from pediatric radiologist David Ayoub.)
The Sunday Times last week published a more detailed treatment of Dr. Squier’s story than appeared in the early news reports—you have to register with the Times to see the article, but the process is free and reasonably painless.
The past few weeks have also brought a number of disappointments—in Michigan, a second trial resulted in another guilty verdict against Leo Ackley, whose first conviction had been vacated on appeal, and an appeals court affirmed the conviction of Joshua Burns, who has served his jail time and reunited with his family, although he remains on probation. Both appeals had been pressed by the Michigan Innocence Clinic, which has been focusing on shaking cases.
Leo Ackley’s family insists they will keep fighting for him, and last month the Michigan Innocence Clinic won a grant to help defend clients who may have been wrongfully convicted in shaking cases. Despite two disappointments this season, the clinic will surely keep up the pressure against a flawed theory that’s been winning in court way too long.
I hope the press, the public, and professionals in the arena stay tuned as the debate unfolds.
copyright 2016, Sue Luttner
If you are not familiar with the debate surrounding shaken baby theory, please see the home page of this blog.