Dr. John Plunkett, the forensic pathologist who galvanized a network of physicians and attorneys fighting for justice in shaken baby cases, died peacefully early this month in Minnesota, surrounded by family and friends, two weeks short of his 71st birthday.
“John Plunkett was an American hero. He should be remembered as an iconic figure to anyone who cares deeply about injustice,” said attorney Randy Papetti, who worked with Dr. Plunkett on the landmark Drayton Witt exoneration—only one of 50 successful appeals Dr. Plunkett had a hand in over the years, according to the official obituary.
“John was a great inspiration to me and to a whole generation of doctors and lawyers,” emailed Dr. Waney Squier, a British pediatric neuropathologist who received the Innocence Network (IN) Champion of Justice Award in 2016, the same year Dr. Plunkett received the IN Lifetime Achievement Award. “He showed us how to think critically,” she continued. “He showed us courage, compassion, and humility. He taught me to wear cowboy boots and chew tobacco.”
Dr. Plunkett’s influence ran deep. Dr. Jan Leestma, author of the classic text Forensic Neuropathology, recalled that meeting John Plunkett in the 1980s—from opposite sides of the courtroom—helped convince him to look more closely at shaking theory. Leestma reviewed “virtually all the literature at the time,” he said, and changed his position. He then became an early and influential voice calling for more scientific rigor in both the research and the testimony regarding shaken baby syndrome. Dr. Leestma’s testimony on behalf of British au pair Louise Woodward in 1997 helped expose the nation to the emerging debate.
Comments about Dr. Plunkett in private and public forums—such as the Facebook page for the documentary “The Syndrome,” which captured Dr. Plunkett’s passion and sincerity on screen—offer praise and thanks from attorneys he educated, families he helped, and physicians he inspired. The word “hero” shows up a lot.
“John mentored me through a rapid learning curve,” wrote assistant federal defender Doug Olson, who described Dr. Plunkett as “brilliant… He was patient with his explanations and kept me on track… He was a maverick who understood science and stood up for what he believed in, but he also had a big heart and cared about people.”
“John was a thorough, detail-oriented expert witness [in multiple cases],” public defender Alicia Cata in Arizona posted on a list serve, “often not collecting a dime for all his work.”
Katherine Judson, an IN attorney, added a personal note, “And so kind, so generous, and fun, and funny.” Law professor Keith Findley, who worked with Dr.Plunkett on the groundbreaking Audrey Edmunds appeal, echoed that sentiment, describing Dr. Plunkett as “a deeply thoughtful and caring, but also fun-loving and quite funny man.”
Pathologist Dr. Patrick Lantz, taking the Latin approach popular with physicians, wrote, “Primus inter pares,” which translates as “first among equals,” a phrase commonly applied to the unofficial leader in a group with no formal hierarchy.
The families he defended described Dr. Plunkett as “warm,” “caring,” and “dedicated.” One couple whose family was shattered by a shaking diagnosis wrote in the mortuary guest book, “He was a wonderful resource but also a wonderful friend… Fly high, Doctor, you will be missed.”
A Pioneer in the Field
Dr. Plunkett encountered his first shaken baby diagnosis in 1986, in a death he concluded could have been accidental—the mother reported that her daughter had fallen from the arm of a couch while reaching for a shelf above. But the child abuse experts testified that children do not die from household falls and they believed the little girl had been shaken to death. Unconvinced, Dr. Plunkett started reading the published research about infant shaking and found, he once told me, “the least scientific literature I had ever seen.”
He lost that first case, but had become one of the few forensic pathologists in the nation to have studied the literature and recognized the problems with shaking theory. He found himself called into other cases, increasingly disturbed by the power of misinformed medical testimony in the courtroom.
“I was a practicing physician,” Dr. Plunkett told me last year, “I didn’t write articles. But I had to start. People need to know that families are being destroyed because doctors don’t understand injury mechanisms.”
After the Woodward conviction, child abuse experts published a letter to the journal Pediatrics complaining about both press coverage that treated the defense theory as credible and the experts who offered it. “Let those who would challenge the specificity of these diagnostic features first do so in the peer-reviewed literature, before speculating on other causes in court,” the doctors wrote. Characteristically, Dr. Plunkett rose to the challenge, with his first published article on the topic, “Shaken Baby Syndrome and the Death of Matthew Eappen: A Forensic Pathologist’s Response,” in which he questioned everything about the syndrome from the specificity of the findings to the timing of the injuries. He followed that paper in 1999 with a case study presenting a child whose death was caused by a brain aneurism.
“I admire John for having the courage to stand up and say the emperor has no clothes,” wrote attorney Mark Freeman in an email last week. Freeman described Dr. Plunkett as “gracious—and incredibly helpful” when he met him in 2009, while helping a friend who was accused of shaking his baby. Although Freeman’s specialty is not criminal law, he has stayed in the network to help orient other attorneys handling their first SBS cases or pursuing civil suits.
Dr. Plunkett’s willingness to speak out earned him both personal and professional criticism, including criminal charges of “false swearing” in 2005, after his testimony helped win an innocent verdict in Oregon. A judge eventually acquitted Dr. Plunkett, who was slowed down briefly but not stopped by the harassment.
In 2001, Dr. Plunkett challenged the common knowledge that children don’t die in short falls by publishing a collection of 18 fatal pediatric fall reports, of distances from 2 to 10 feet, which he pulled from the records of the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Shortly after that, he organized the Evidence Based Medicine Symposium (EBMS), an on-line forum that allowed physicians from different specialties to communicate with each other about shaken baby theory. “John’s web contributions cannot be emphasized enough,” posted Dr. Leestma. “This list serve brought people together… Godspeed, my friend.”
“His work made progress possible,” emailed intensivist Steven Gabaeff, who has published his own papers on SBS (here and here). “He was generous, good natured, brilliant, warm, hard working… and he did so much to raise awareness of our shared concerns. He was the catalyst for getting the attorneys involved.”
In 2005, Dr. Plunkett published an editorial in the BMJ, co-authored with British neuropathologist Dr. Gennian Geddes, with the self-explanatory title, “The evidence base for shaken baby syndrome: We need to re-evaluate the diagnostic criteria.” (The same issue contained a paper by Dr. Lantz about retinal folds.)
Dr. Plunkett also coauthored papers with automotive-research pioneer Dr. Werner Goldsmith and biomechanics expert Chris Van Ee. He organized two conferences of the EBMS, and he recruited presenters for the 2013 World Congress on Infant Head Trauma, a forum organized by the publishing arm of the National Association of Medical Examiners to foster direct debate between proponents and skeptics of shaken baby theory.
Forensic pathologist Dr. Carl Wigren attended the 2013 World Congress because he’d been hearing rumblings that the common knowledge about shaken baby might be wrong—and what he heard there convinced him that Dr. Plunkett and his team were right. He wrote that Dr. Plunkett “is the epitome of the person I strive to be. Understanding medicine is one responsibility of a physician, but applying and transmitting that knowledge to assist those in need is the gift that John possessed in spades.”
Julia Jonas at the Innocence Project of Minnesota remembered that when she was a young lawyer, Dr. Plunkett was the only medical examiner in the county willing to take cases for the defense. “He never made me feel ignorant and often made me feel empowered,” she wrote, and she credited him with changing attitudes: “He has trained several of our local medical examiners to be the truly independent experts that they should be, and not simply another voice for the prosecution. He will be greatly missed, but his legacy will live on.”
In a blog post marking Dr. Plunkett’s death and praising his work, Radley Balko at The Washington Post wrote, “Plunkett deserves credit for being among the first to sound the alarm about wrongful SBS convictions.”
Dr. Plunkett spent 39 years as a forensic pathologist, the official obituary reports. He directed the pathology lab at Regina Medical Center in Hastings, Minnesota, for 26 years and served as the coroner for Dakota County. The obituary does not mention that in his youth he played acoustic guitar in coffee houses, with a band called The Four.
He is survived by his wife of over 47 years Donna McFarren Plunkett, the love of his life, and sons Matt (Jen), and Ben; two grandchildren Fiona and Cailin; siblings Patrick (Anita), Marnie Olson (John), Tim (Lucy), Paul (Susan), Michael (Dawn), Ann, and Peggy; brothers-in-law Neil (Diane), and Russ (Tish); and many nieces and nephews.
A Personal Note
I had my first phone call with Dr. Plunkett in 2000, when he was about to publish his short fall paper. I had been researching shaken baby for two years at that point, after the niece of a friend was convicted of shaking a baby in her care. I’d been comparing the medical testimony in the trial transcripts with the scientific facts available in the medical journals, and puzzling over the gap. Could I, not a medical professional, but a technical writer and careful reader, possibly have identified fundamental problems with the evidence base for a well-accepted but unproven theory that was almost unbeatable in court?
Dr. Plunkett assured me that I had done just that. “You start to look at this with even the rudimentary elements of scientific thinking,” he confirmed, “And you say, ‘What is going on here?'”
He then gave me my first lesson in the physics of short falls, and I was hooked.
He became the medical advisor to my book, and for 15 years, my book proposal has promised he would write the introduction, an introduction neither one of us ever crafted. I guess I will be dedicating the book to him instead.
Copyright 2018, Sue Luttner
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