Category Archives: Falsely accused

Short Falls, Long Sentences

The innocent verdict in Yolo County last month has me reflecting on a few of the people I know who are in prison on the basis of medical opinion that (1) short pediatric falls are seldom if ever fatal and (2) the symptoms of a serious infant head injury will be immediately obvious.

Because the doctors are so sure, police and social services move ahead with confidence, and juries tend to convict. Tragically and exasperatingly, the legal outcomes then seem to support the common knowledge, which remains a matter of opinion, not proven fact.

Rico Green

Rico Green

Rico Green

Rico Green in Oklahoma, for example, is serving a life sentence following the 2010 death of his girl friend’s toddler, 13-month-old Gericho. “Anybody that knows Rico knows that’s not him,” says Antoine Hubbard, a family friend who has pulled together the case records, hoping to file an appeal. “Rico’s a gentle guy. He’d never do something like that.”

gericho

Gericho 2010

Gericho’s mother had just started a new job and Rico was watching Gericho, as he often did. He called 911 mid-day, with a report that the boy was unconscious after falling down a few steps—but at the hospital, doctors said a short fall couldn’t account for the injuries.

During extensive police interviews, Rico reported an incident earlier that morning when he had “snatched up” Gericho and scolded him, when the boy had grabbed the toilet plunger after his bath and pretended he was going to bite it, a game he’d learned was provocative. In the videotaped portion of the interrogation, the final half hour, the detectives do most of the talking, insisting that Rico, enraged, shook the boy at that time.

Rico shows a remarkably even temper on camera, seemingly more puzzled than angry as the detectives refuse to accept the story he repeats again and again: What he feels bad about is yelling at Gericho and making him cry.  “I know he’s a one-year-old,” Rico explains, “He probably doesn’t understand.” The detectives keep at it, though, until Rico finally seems to accept their theory that he was so angry during the plunger incident he didn’t realize how hard he had shaken the boy when he grabbed him. What sounded like a confession to them looked to me like acquiescence, and not the behavior of a man prone to violent outbursts.

Rico’s trial lasted three days and featured 13 prosecution witnesses. The public defender called no witnesses on his behalf, and the jury convicted Rico of murder in the first degree. Antoine Hubbard is now looking for pro bono legal help.

Jeff and Gracelynn Baker, 2010

Jeff and Gracelynn Baker, 2010

Jeff Baker

In Idaho, mature father Jeff Baker is serving a life sentence for the death of his daughter Gracelynn, not quite three months old the afternoon in 2010 when her father found her struggling to breathe shortly after he’d fed her. The babysitter who had been caring for the girl earlier in the day later told police she had accidentally dropped the baby into a sink while bathing her, but Baker was convicted of murder, in what doctors testified was both a shaking and a slamming assault.

Pediatric neuroradiologist Dr. Patrick Barnes, called in by the defense, noted that Gracelynn’s breathing tube was misplaced in two of the scans he reviewed. Baker, who has written his own appeal from prison, sent me excerpts from the medical records showing the catastrophic drop in his daughter’s blood-oxygen levels that night, and the “reintubation” procedure the following morning. The state has appointed an attorney to represent Baker at the upcoming hearing on his appeal.

Tiffani Calise

Tiffani Calise

Tiffani Calise

Tiffani Calise was only 19 years old the night she called 911 for help with a toddler who she said had slipped and fallen in the bathtub. She was arrested two weeks later, in August of 2010, and she hasn’t been out of custody since. She is now missing her own daughter’s childhood while serving a sentence of 15 years to life for the presumed murder of her friend’s child. Her first appeal was turned down, but supporters are working on another.

Leo Ackley's Facebook profile shot not long before the accusations

Leo Ackley with Baylee — His Facebook profile shot not long before the accusations

Leo Ackley

Last year’s successful appeal on behalf of Leo Ackley turned to disappointment this spring, when the Michigan Court of Appeals  reversed that decision, calling it “clear error.”

At issue was whether trial counsel Kenneth Marks provided ineffective assistance in 2012 by failing to look for a different expert witness after the first pathologist he approached, Dr. Brian Hunter, told him he believed 3-year-old Baylee’s injuries were caused by abuse, not the fall from a bed that Ackley had reported. In hearings last summer, Hunter testified that he told Marks the issue was controversial, and he suggested other pathologists who believed a short fall could be fatal. He did not charge for the initial consultation.

Marks concedes that he did not contact either of the experts Hunter had suggested, but chose to spend the $1,500 he’d been granted to hire Hunter, not as an expert witness but as a trial consultant, preparing him to cross examine the state’s pathologist. All parties seem to agree that Marks successfully forced Dr. Joyce deJong to admit on the stand that doctors did not know what level of force was necessary to cause the brain injury that killed Baylee. Still, Ackley was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

kaylee

Baylee

Appeal attorney Andrew Rodenhouse argued that because the case hinged on expert medical opinion, a reasonable defense required a physician on the stand to support Ackley’s claim of innocence. Marks should have contacted one of the suggested experts, Rodenhouse said, petitioning the court for more funds if necessary, or he could have at least subpoenaed the little girl’s pediatrician, who had noted at a check-up that Baylee was doing better with the mother’s new boyfriend in her life. In the fall of 2013, Chief Circuit Judge James C. Kingsley agreed and set aside Ackley’s conviction.

In an opinion released in April, though, a new panel of judges concluded:

“[Marks’] decision not to consult a second expert constituted trial strategy. Defense counsel is not required to continue seeking experts until he finds one who will offer favorable testimony.”

Rodenhouse says he is entirely committed to both Ackley’s case and the larger fight against misguided accusations of infant shaking. He points to the re-opening of the Adrian Thomas conviction in New York and last week’s remarkable reversal by a Minnesota trial judge of a jury decision and declares, “There is a momentum. We’ve got to keep it going.”

Sean O’Geary

Sean O'Geary

Sean O’Geary

The Innocence Project of Iowa, meanwhile, has confirmed that it’s examining the case of Sean O’Geary, in prison since 1998 in the death of his girl friend’s 2-year-old daughter Mercedes.

The girl’s grandmother had dropped her off on Friday afternoon with a report that she’d had the flu for a couple of days. Both Sean and his girl friend said Mercedes fell onto the coffee table the next day, while jumping on the couch, and both of them reported hearing a loud thump later that night, after everyone was in bed. It was Sean who went to check on her, though, and so it was Sean who was accused of shaking and slamming her to death. He said he found her climbing back into her crib, and she seemed fine at the time, but on Sunday evening she was rushed to the hospital with convulsions.

giovo

Michael Giovo Jr. with Skyler

Michael Giovo Jr.

Without realizing it,  Michael Giovo Jr. offered investigators one of the leading stories that child abuse professionals are trained to doubt:  A fall from a couch.

Michael said he had stayed up watching television on Thanksgiving night in 2008, after his girl friend had gone to bed. When he heard 4-month-old Skyler crying, he picked him up from his crib and settled him on the couch while heating a bottle. Michael did not witness the fall, he said, but heard a cry and returned to find Skyler on the floor. The boy seemed to recover and spent the night in bed with him, Michael reported, but he and his girl friend rushed the boy to the hospital the next day, when he started twitching. Giovo is now serving life in prison.

Reporter Jonathan Able at the Tampa Bay Times said that Michael had no idea during hours of police questioning that he was accused of assaulting his son:

He said he went along with the interview voluntarily because police said he was not a suspect. “If I knew they were going to make me a suspect I would have asked for a lawyer right then.”

Atlanta, Georgia, September 2010

Atlanta, Georgia, September 2010, at the NCSBS conference

The 2010 conference sponsored by the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome featured a mock trial in which a babysitter reported an unwitnessed fall from a bed, a distance of 36 inches, possibly with an impact against a wooden stool. The imaginary infant had both new and old fractures, as well as acute subdural hematoma, retinal hemorrhages, and brain swelling. On the mock stand, the prosecution doctors all agreed that a short fall would not account for the injuries, and that the child had been violently assaulted after she was dropped off at the babysitter’s, the last point at which she was observed to be alert, eating, and playing.

Hundreds of doctors attended that conference and returned to their hospitals with a clear message: Short falls don’t kill. The problem is that it’s a question of faith, not a question of scientific fact. Despite the common knowledge, biomechanical research has shown that short falls can produce large forces. In a report submitted on behalf of death-row inmate Jeffrey Havard in the fall of 2013, for example, biomechanical engineer Prof. Chris Van Ee wrote, “it is clear that low level falls of even 2-3 feet can result in injurious level head impacts resulting in skull fracture and intracranial hemorrhage.”

I wish the doctors who rely so readily on the common knowledge, and the police and social workers who leap into action at the word of the doctors, would slow down and listen to the defendants more carefully. I think there is still a lot to learn.

If you are not familiar with the debate surrounding shaken baby syndrome, please see the home page of this blog.

For more stories of caregivers and parents convicted in short-fall cases, please see http://www.marshamills.org/thestory.aspx,  http://brianpeixoto.com/,http://www.freeamandabrumfield.com/, and http://www.theamandatruthproject.com/heartofthematter.htm, and these are only the ones with web sites.

copyright 2014, Sue Luttner

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Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, Falsely accused, parents accused, SBS, shaken baby syndrome

A Yolo County Jury Believes the Father

SamStone

Sam Stone, 2012

A jury in Yolo County, California, has found 40-year-old Quentin Stone not guilty of child endangerment and abuse, in a case that highlights the limitations of the common knowledge about both the potential danger of short falls and the timing of symptoms following infant head injury.

The story begins in early September of 2012, when Stone brought his son Sam, then two months old, to the Kaiser clinic with a report that the boy had fallen from a bed onto a hardwood floor. Sam showed no symptoms at the time, and doctors found nothing alarming during their examination. The boy was brought in again the next day with a report of projectile vomiting, and again he was examined and sent home. A series of emails and another in-person visit document his parents’ ongoing concern with Sam’s continued vomiting and episodes of “breath holding” over the following days and weeks.

Sam Stone had both a twin and an older brother.

Sam Stone had both a twin and an older brother.

Then on October 3, Sam collapsed and his father rushed the unconscious boy to the hospital, where scans revealed both fresh and chronic subdural hematomas.  Doctors diagnosed Sam as the victim of abusive head trauma. According to trial coverage by Sarah Dowling at the Democrat News, prosecutor Steven Mount dismissed Stone’s claim that his son had fallen off a bed in September:

Mount said except for Stone’s testimony, there is no evidence that a fall even happened. Instead, Stone could have gotten angry with the child or simply wanted to stop him from crying. Regardless of the motivation, Mount said that Stone could have shaken the child, coming up with the “fall story” to cover it up.

Stone had said he wasn’t in the room when the boy fell. He had left Sam in the middle of a king-sized bed and gone briefly out to the garage. When he returned, Sam was on the floor. Sam’s twin brother Henry was asleep in a swing, but Stone thought their other son Jack, two-and-a-half at the time, might have pulled the boy off the bed.

Public defender Monica Brushia said she was sure from the beginning that her client was innocent. “Just reading the police report, I knew the doctors had misdiagnosed Sam, which led to his death… This was a very difficult and emotional case.” Both she and co-counsel Martha Sequeira cried real tears while preparing for trial, Brushia reports, and again when the verdict was read.

Brushia shared a Facebook posting from one of the jurors, whose account of the trial included this paragraph:

Today, an innocent man was set free of blame and accusation of the death of his son. Mr Stone didn’t abuse his child, he did everything he could do to save him. The sad fact is Dr’s make mistakes, sometimes they miss things, sometimes they are wrong. The death of this child really was at the hands of 2 Kaiser Dr’s, who went against what another Kaiser specialist had warned.

OnTheCouchMr. Stone is now trying to regain custody of his surviving sons, with whom he is allowed only weekly supervised visits.

The prosecution relied on expert testimony from Dr. Kevin Coulter, pediatrics division chief at the University of California, Davis, Medical Center, and forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, also on the UCD Medical Center faculty and chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County. The defense called forensic pathologist Dr. John Plunkett, pediatric neuroradiologist Dr. Pat Barnes, and ER physician Dr. Steven Gabaeff.

Dr. Plunkett’s report included a few paragraphs that might be educational for anyone working on one of these cases. On the subject of chronic subdural hematoma, for example, Plunkett wrote:

Sam had a large chronic SDH and a small acute left-sided SDH when Woodland and Davis’ personnel evaluated him. A chronic SDH, sometimes referred to as an hygroma, must begin either as an acute SDH or as an intradural effusion. A predominance of blood or blood products typifies a hematoma. A high protein-content fluid with medical imaging signal features similar to cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) characterizes an effusion. It is often not possible (clinically or radiographically) to determine whether a chronic SDH began as intradural bleeding or as an effusion. If the chronic SDH started as acute bleeding, the acute SDH may be large and require surgical evacuation, may resolve and heal with no apparent signs and symptoms, or may become “chronic”. If the acute hematoma does not resolve, it develops a membrane that is extremely fragile and has many new, immature blood vessels. These blood vessels may rupture, causing “new” bleeding and an increase in the size of the initial SDH. There have been a number of studies to determine why some acute hematomas become chronic. The best explanation appears to be that the unique characteristics of the clotting system in the hematoma itself allow the bleeding to persist rather than to heal. The Medical Imaging literature has documented this phenomenon in studies following hospitalized SDH patients with serial CT and MR scans, which show new bleeding in established hematomas in the absence of trauma. “New” trauma is not required for this progression.

And regarding the origin of subdural bleeds, which can be caused by impact but also by a number of non-traumatic circumstances:

Impact may cause dural compartment bleeding in an infant. The infant skull is not rigid, and may deform significantly during an impact, even without fracture. This deformation, or inbending, distorts the underlying brain, and may stretch the bridging veins, may physically alter the dural venous plexuses, and/or may activate the trigeminal (“V”) cranial nerve. If these changes exceed the tensile failure threshold for the veins or the plexuses, they rupture and bleed into the dural border cell layer (“the subdural space”). If the rupture involves relatively large vessels, the bleeding may be significant and lead to rapid compromise of brain function and death, even with timely and appropriate surgical intervention. Alternatively, the bleeding may be relatively slow and even asymptomatic for a considerable time, and only lead to clinical signs if there is an increase in head circumference or an increase in intracranial pressure, the latter triggering vomiting, seizures, and/or compromise of respiratory function. The impact may be apparently innocuous and extremely low velocity. Scientific studies using adult human volunteers (scaled to the infant), cadavers, non-human primates, and other experimental animals; accident reconstruction; computer modeling; and finite element analysis have established and validated infant human brain injury g and Head Injury Criterion (HIC) thresholds. The current federal head-injury standard for a 6-month-old infant represented by the CRABI-6 dummy is a Head Injury Criterion threshold of 390 and a peak g threshold of 50 (50 times the acceleration due to gravity). The researchers have not established thresholds for a 3-month-old infant. However, they are lower than for a 6-month-old infant. A simple headfirst impact to a non- yielding surface from as little as a two-foot fall will usually exceed these thresholds. Fatal impact head injury in an infant does not require a motor vehicle accident or a fall from a two- story building.

These thresholds imply an “all” (risk of severe injury or death) or “none” (no risk of severe injury or death) event. However, biological systems including human beings are seldom “all” or “none”. Further, underlying conditions such as an abnormality of the blood coagulation system, individual cerebral vascular anatomy, cerebral atrophy or increased extra-axial fluid, and an individual’s unique metabolic pathways may alter the threshold and outcome for impact trauma.

Sam had a history of a significant impact event, but I will discuss briefly non-impact causes of dural bleeding for completeness. I do not think that any of these conditions caused or contributed to Sam’s initial acute bleeding with the possible exception of birth or an increase in extra-axial subarachnoid space (so-called “benign” expansion of the subarachnoid space, or BESS).

A number of “natural diseases” and metabolic abnormalities predispose to, or are associated with, SDH. However, anatomical research suggests that damage to the dural venous plexuses rather than traumatic stretching of the bridging veins causes the SDH in these cases. Examples include but are not limited to:

  • The birth process itself, including C-section delivery;
  • Lumbar puncture resulting in intracranial hypotension;
  • A variety of infections caused by bacteria and viruses;
  • Breakthrough bleeding associated with cortical venous thrombosis (CVT), or sagittal sinus thrombosis (SST) or other large-sinus thrombosis;
  • Inborn errors of metabolism such as glutaric aciduria and Menkes Disease;
  • Inherited or acquired coagulation abnormalities, such as hypofibrinogenemia, Vitamin K deficiency, or thrombocytosis;
  • Structural abnormities such as an arachnoid cyst, increased extra-axial fluid, or subdural hygromas;
  • V ascular malformations such as, but not limited to, A V malformations;
  • Poorly understood inflammatory processes such as hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis and post-vaccination reactions; and
  • Spontaneous, in which the bleeding develops with no recognizable cause.
Finally, hypoxia or anoxia may cause subdural hemorrhage either as a primary or as a secondary event. For example, hypoxic damage to the dural venous plexuses rather than mechanical trauma is the most likely cause for intradural hemorrhage that may lead to subdural hemorrhage when hypoxia is associated with an increase in intracranial pressure.

 

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Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, Dr. John Plunkett, Falsely accused, parents accused, SBS, shaken baby syndrome

Journey With “Justice”: A Rough Road

journey

Dan Schrock, the author of Journey With “Justice”: Our Family’s Experience With “Shaken Baby” Allegations, is a gentler spirit in person than he is on the printed page. He has even found a message of hope in his daughter’s conviction for an infant shaking he is sure never happened.

“The temptation is to say ‘the police did this’ and ‘the prosecutor did that,'” he concedes, “But behind all this is a society that loves children and is willing to do anything to protect them.” Even the investigators who amplified his family’s pain by lying to potential witnesses, he argues, were only trying to hold someone accountable for his granddaughter’s catastrophic collapse.

Natalia Benson was three months old in July, 2005, the morning she wakened her mother, Barb Schrock, at 3 am with a high-pitched scream, followed by breathing problems and a call to 911. Within two days, Natalia had become a ward of the state, diagnosed as a shaken baby, and Barb was the only suspect.

Barbara Schrock, 2011

Barbara Schrock in prison, 2011

Like so many infants in these circumstances, Natalia came into the world in fragile health. She weighed 3 pounds 11 ounces at birth, after a labor induced at 34 weeks due to her mother’s soaring blood pressure. She spent her first three weeks of life in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, and she still weighed only 6 pounds when 3 months old. Barb had called the doctor’s office the previous day, concerned that the baby seemed not herself, and had made an appointment for that morning, a few hours after the girl’s collapse. A month earlier, she had taken Natalia to an after-hours clinic because her breathing didn’t seem right:  At that time the infant was diagnosed with a sinus infection and put on antibiotics.

Despite Natalia’s complex medical history and lack of bruising or abrasions, the pattern of bleeding and swelling found inside her skull convinced the doctors that the girl had been shaken. Oddly enough, the doctors also agreed that she had suffered a more serious brain injury weeks earlier, although that didn’t seem to interfere with the assumption that she had been violently assaulted immediately before her collapse.

DSC02771Dan Schrock’s main achievement in Journey is his careful tracking of the evolving case against his daughter:  Early in the story, he transcribes the initial police interviews with family members, and he carries his thorough knowledge of these transcripts through the narration. His book illustrates clearly how misinformation, propagated early on by police trying to corner their suspect, confused the facts and tainted both the investigation and the trials. He also compares the medical testimony from different doctors, revealing how the physicians could  reach different conclusions from the same scans and records, but still return to their unanimous confidence that the last caretaker with the child before her collapse was guilty of assault.

Journey With “Justice” is not a light read:  It is Dan Schrock’s from-the-heart protest against the murky thinking and questionable tactics that condemned his daughter to lose both her family and her liberty. He and his wife have also been denied any visitation with their surviving granddaughter, at the instigation of the girl’s father and his family. “They believe her mother killed her sister,” Schrock sighs, “And they don’t want our side of the family in her life.”

He told me he wrote Journey so that his granddaughter would some day have a record of what really happened, and as a testament to the support his family received from their church community. In that he has succeeded. Especially when he talks about the case in retrospect, now that he has the leisure of hindsight, he is a living testament to the value of faith. His indignation comes through, and his love for his daughter, but I found no bitterness in his message.

Barb Schrock should be getting out of prison in the next few months. It is comforting to know that she will have an accepting family and community to help her move forward when this phase of her ordeal is over.

Update: Barbara Schrock was released from prison in early summer, 2014.

If you are not familiar with the debate surrounding shaken baby syndrome, please see the home page of this blog site.

copyright 2014, Sue Luttner

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Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, Falsely accused, parents accused, SBS, shaken baby syndrome

New Cases Keep Coming, And So Do the Appeals

brianPeixotoThe action in the shaken baby arena seems to be ramping up, maybe because a few successful appeals have breathed new hope into old cases. This site is receiving not only the usual traffic from newly accused families looking for answers but also messages from supporters on the outside renewing their commitment to prisoners convicted years ago—like Brian Peixoto, who has been such an exemplary inmate during 18 years of incarceration that he was chosen to train service dogs at one facility, although he’s since been transferred.

Brian’s most recent appeal was turned down this past fallbut his case has been taken on by both the innocence arm of his state’s public defense committee and the New England Innocence Project, and his supporters have just this winter put up an ambitious web site.

Closer to the public eye, judges have granted new hearings in two old cases, reopening the convictions of child care providers Jennifer Del Prete in Illinois, whose case I looked at in a posting last month, and René Bailey in New York, featured briefly in a posting last summer. In Bailey’s case, the appeal brief offered a new report from a child care provider who said she had seen a 2-year-old boy who was at Bailey’s home on the crucial day re-enacting with stuffed animals a sequence that matched Bailey’s description of an accidental injury to a little girl. Both that boy and another child had confirmed Bailey’s report at the time, but were deemed too young to be reliable witnesses.

ReneeBaileyThe decision in Bailey’s case, issued by Monroe County Court Judge James J. Piampiano, limits the new hearing to the question of whether the defense has really produced “new evidence” with its proffered testimony from experts about a change in medical thinking regarding shaken baby syndrome and from the boy’s care provider about her observations.  Reporter Steve Orr wrote in the Democrat Chronicle:

At the time of her conviction, nearly all physicians and other experts believed that symptoms such as those displayed by [the toddler] could be caused by violent shaking, and conversely that nothing other than shaking or throwing a child could cause them.

But some experts now argue that those conclusions were based on shaky science. They say new research shows falls or illnesses can cause some of the symptoms traditionally ascribed to shaking.

The Criminal Justice Center Blog at Pace Law School posted this commentary on the case.

jhavardIn Mississippi, meanwhile, where Jeffrey Havard waits on death row, his supporters have created a thorough new web site that includes the text of his most recent appeal, filed in November of 2013. The appeal is based on both a new set of expert opinions and the 2009 recanting by the state’s star witness, Dr. Steven Hayne, of the sexual abuse diagnosis that made Havard eligible for the death penalty. Arguing that testimony about shaken baby syndrome at Havard’s 2002 trial has also not withstood the test of time, attorney Graham P. Carner quotes, among others, the affidavit of biomechanical engineer Chris Van Ee, PhD:

It would be biomechanically incorrect to dismiss the history of fall as a causal factor resulting in the findings described at autopsy. Shaking is a less likely explanation for these findings…
The rotational forces attained in manual shaking cannot be equated to those occurring as a result of a multistory fall or a high speed motor vehicle accident. To suggest otherwise is without scientific foundation.

amandaRallyFeb2014And in Florida, friends and family are regrouping in support of Amanda Brumfield, convicted in the 2008 death of her best friend’s one-year-old daughter. Brumfield reported that the baby had fallen and hit her head while climbing out of a portable playpen. Supporters are launching their new campaign with a rally next Friday at the church Amanda attended before her incarceration.

Supporters of child care provider Marsha Mills in Ohio have had their site up since 2007, within months of Mills’ conviction in another toddler-fall case. The site shows fundraisers for her defense as recently as November of 2013. They are now awaiting the results of the most recent appeal.

Finally, in Canada, Onatario Court of Appeal Judge Marc Rosenberg has authorized appeals by two shaken baby defendants who have already served their time but want to clear their records. The decision cites the lessons of the Goudge hearings in 2012.

All of this appeal activity would feel like progress, except that the other kind of story keeps coming as well. Just in the past two days I’ve seen news reports of shaking allegations against a father in Wisconsin, a young mother in Pennsylvania, and the boyfriend of the child’s mother in Ohio.

Note:  A number of support sites have remained in place for years but are not mentioned in this posting because they are holding steady, not surging. Still, it feels incomplete not to mention here the The Amanda Truth Project, which contains many family vignettes. For a  list of individual support sites, petitions, and Facebook pages, please see the lower portion of the Cases page on this blog.

If you are not familiar with the debate surrounding shaken baby syndrome, please see the home page of this blog.

copyright 2014, Sue Luttner

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Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, Brian Peixoto, Falsely accused, Jeffrey Havard, Jennifer Del Prete, Renee Bailey, SBS, shaken baby syndrome

“Dissent Into Confusion:” The Supreme Court, Denialism, and Shaken Baby

Atlanta, Georgia, September 2010

Atlanta, Georgia
Site of the 11th International Conference on Shaken Baby Syndrome/Abusive Head Trauma
September 2010

bold article in the Utah Law Review by Prof. Joëlle Anne Moreno at the Florida International University College of Law and prosecutor Brian Holmgren in Tennessee not only dismisses the debate about shaken baby syndrome as a “false controversy” but also labels SBS defense experts as “mercenaries” and roasts Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for her dissenting opinion when the court reinstated the vacated conviction of grandmother Shirley Ree Smith in 2011.

Dissent Into Confusion:  The Supreme Court, Denialism, and the False ‘Scientific’ Controversy Over Shaken Baby Syndrome” explores a couple of topics I’ve heard Holmgren address in the past, and it reminds me of his rollicking presentation in Atlanta in 2010, which I will get to later in this posting. The Dissent paper correctly identifies the 1997 trial of British au pair Louise Woodward as a  milestone in the arena, achieving far more than just bringing the syndrome into the headlines. Their analysis:

“The hotly contested trial also brought national attention to the use of highly paid defense medical witnesses to challenge the accuracy of a child abuse diagnosis and to advance outlier and highly controversial ‘alternative theories’ of causation… Woodward marks the origin of the false AHT/SBS controversy—at least in part because the defendant, who was convicted of second-degree murder by a jury, was later freed by the judge.  This fact alone could explain the resulting public uncertainty regarding the weight of the prosecution’s medical evidence. Irresponsible journalists, however, including Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes, exacerbated the confusion.”

scalesI agree that the Woodward trial brought a new kind of medical evidence to the courtroom, but I would call it a vital counterbalance to the common knowledge. The au pair agency that had placed the nanny, or possibly their insurance company, paid for first-rate attorneys who brought in experts with impeccable credentials. In his decision to set Woodward’s sentence at time served, Judge Hiller Zobel cited the nanny’s confusion, inexperience, and immaturity. I have to wonder if he wasn’t also influenced by the testimony of witnesses like biomechanics pioneer Lawrence Thibault, ScD, who had designed the experimental mannequins for the Duhaime research that raised the first scientific questions about shaking theory in the 1980s, and pioneering neurosurgeon Ayoub Ommaya, who had collaborated with Thibault long before the Duahime study. The televised trial certainly featured a more organized and  better articulated defense than the 1997 trial that drew me into this arena, or any of the others I’ve researched from that era, especially Shirley Ree Smith’s.

As in Woodward, the prosecution prevailed in Smith, only to see the defendant released after all, amid media coverage that seemed to imply innocence. Smith was convicted in 1997 but released in 2006, after the Ninth Circuit  Court of Appeals vacated the jury’s decision. The Supreme Court reinstated her conviction in 2011, but the following spring California Gov. Jerry Brown issued a pardon, so Smith was not required to return to prison and finish her sentence. Moreno and Holmgren promise to set the record straight by dispelling what they see as two fundamental errors in the dissenting opinion to the Supreme Court decision:  that Smith’s grandson Etzel Glass showed “few signs of SBS” and that “doubt has increased within the medical community regarding SBS.”

“Few signs of SBS”

-photo by Julia Catron

-photo by Julia Catron

As the Dissent paper concedes, the autopsy report says Etzel had subdural and subarachnoid bleeding but no brain swelling and no retinal hemorrhages. Doctors also found blood in the optic nerve sheaths, most of it “recent in origin” but with “occasional hemosiderin pigment deposits” that implied decomposed blood. Only one of these signs—subdural hematoma—is technically on the short list of defining SBS symptoms, although some sources include “subdural or subarachnoid” bleeding, as both are a common result of impact injury, except that subarachnoid bleeding has more known non-traumatic causes than subdural bleeding.

At Smith’s trial, forensic pathologist Dr. Stephanie Ehrich, her supervisor Dr. Eugene Carpenter, and child-abuse pediatrician Dr. David Chadwick all testified that Etzel had died of a shaking assault that tore his brainstem, causing death so immediate that there was no time for the usual signs of SBS to develop. But autopsy revealed no evidence of any tearing, which apparently Erlich believed to be within the brainstem, which she didn’t examine. Moreno and Holmgren write:

“Dr. Erlich noted that she did not submit sections of Etzel’s brainstem for microscopic examination because injury would not be evident on microscopic examination if the child died quickly, and this would not have assisted in her diagnosis because the examiners ‘wouldn’t have found anything anyway.'”

The authors note that the “medical construct” of AHT “can include subdural hemorrhage, retinal hemorrhage, encephalopathy, and often evidence of previous trauma or other bodily injury.” Granted that Etzel had two items on this list, subdural hematoma and evidence of previous trauma, the overall picture is still short two out of three defining features for SBS. The authors do convince me that they and the prosecution experts all sincerely believe Etzel was shaken to death, but I can identify only one leg of the triad and no reason to conclude that Shirley Smith was responsible for her grandson’s collapse. Did Etzel really cry long and hard enough that his grandmother snapped and shook him to death while his mother, asleep in the next room, never heard a thing?

“Doubt Has Increased”

The Dissent paper also blasts the Edmunds decision, which triggered the 2009 critique of shaken baby in the courtroom by law professor Deborah Tuerkheimer and appears in articles like the 2012 paper by Keith Findley et al. The authors explain:

“Justice Ginsburg notably did not cite any of these law review articles. However, because her opinion closely mirrors these works, she grants an unwarranted imprimatur of legitimacy to legal academic arguments that SBS ‘quite possibly does not exist,’ may be ‘junk science,’ that ‘SBS science in its current conflicted state . . . does not support criminal convictions,’ and that the medical community has ‘deliberately discarded a diagnosis defined by shaking.'”

Moreno and Holmgren attribute the imaginary debate about shaken baby syndrome to a small cadre of “self-interested and highly-paid defense witnesses” who “fundamentally misconstrue and misstate the basic science involved in the medical diagnosis of child abuse” and whose views are then parroted by academics:

“The academics cite the same handful of defense medical witnesses, the media cites both, the defense medical witnesses benefit from the publicity and are hired in more cases, and the cycle begins anew.”

Holmgren elaborated on this theme at the 2010 NCSBS conference, in a multimedia presentation that illustrated how effective he must be in front of a jury. He projected a series of quotes from defense expert testimony while Pinnochio’s nose grew on a larger screen behind him. He charged the witnesses with giving conflicting opinions at different times, misrepresenting their qualifications, misquoting the literature, publishing case studies without revealing their roles as defense witnesses, publishing cases of alleged mimics without revealing that abuse was confirmed by a conviction, and “making blatantly false statements.” scarecrow

The session ended with a sing-along, led by guitar-playing child-abuse pediatrician Dr. John Stirling from Santa Clara County. The song was “If I Only Get Ten Grand” (words here), sung to the tune of “If I Only Had a Brain,” with the message that defense experts are in it for the money. I can speak only from my own experience, but the professionals I know who defend against shaking allegations could be earning a lot more and enduring a lot less flak by staying away from the controversy. And most defendants are having trouble paying the rent in the face of lost income and unexpected legal costs, let alone finding the money for expensive experts.

Holmgren also foreshadowed parts of the Disssent paper in his presentation on the Smith case at the 2012 NCSBS conference, “SBS and the Supreme Court,” in conjunction with child-abuse pediatrician Dr. Randell Alexander. Holmgren opened his segment with a review of the appeals:  Smith was convicted in 1997, and her first appeal was rejected in 2000. Her 2006 habeas petition was denied by a district court, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision. “This always bothers me,” Holmgren said about multiple appeals, “as if the jurors are too stupid to get it right, as if the district attorney is too stupid to get it right.” The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit twice, in 2007 and 2010, but the Ninth Circuit stuck by its decision. “The Supreme Court keeps slapping them down like an unruly child,” Holmgren noted.

Finally, in 2011, the Supreme Court definitively reversed the Ninth Court’s 2006 ruling, and Smith’s conviction was reinstated, but with the problematic minority opinion. Holmgren stepped through the literature cited in the footnotes—Donohoe 2001, Bandak 2005, Leestma 2006, and so on—dismissing each in turn, and indignant that a justice of the supreme court would be getting her information from defense experts. His conclusion with Moreno in the Dissent paper confirms that Holmgren is holding strong to that position:

“The Smith dissenters’ myopic view of the evidence muddies their analysis of the legal and scientific questions and raises real concerns about the message sent to future courts, the media, and the public.”

I don’t see how the Dissent paper is gong to enhance either understanding or justice in these cases, as I think we need to be learning more about infant head injury, not setting up barricades against further discussion. ©2014 Sue Luttner If you are not familiar with the debate surrounding shaken baby syndrome, please see the home page of this site.

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Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, Falsely accused, Innocence Network, keith findley, National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome, parents accused, russell maze, SBS, shaken baby syndrome

An Important Story, Well Told

EdgesOfTruthI first heard about Mary Weaver in 1998, in a prescient ABA Journal article by Mark Hansen, who called her “a poster child” for caretakers falsely accused of shaking babies. Weaver’s conviction was overturned in 1997, Hansen wrote, after new witnesses came forward to report that the 11-month-old who quit breathing in her care had been knocked unconscious in a fall earlier in the day.

Weaver’s attorney Steven Brennecke told me then that he wanted to write a book about the case—and now he has, in collaboration with Christian writer Deb Brammer. Edges of Truth: The Mary Weaver Story is being released on Friday, November 22, 2013.

Edges follows both Weaver and Brennecke closely, from the terrifying meltdown through the unthinkable accusations, three full-on trials, a glacier of appeals, and two years in prison for Weaver. I admit I was impatient at first with the pacing, but when I realized the ultimately reflective nature of the narration, I gave myself over and was glad I did.

A summary of Mary Weaver's case, from the National Registry of Exonerations.

A summary of Mary Weaver’s case, from the National Registry of Exonerations

Like It Happened to Audrey and When Truth No Longer MattersEdges illustrates how an early diagnosis of infant shaking can mislead investigators into targeting an innocent caretaker. But Edges also follows the spiritual journeys of the protagonists. While reading her Bible and talking with the prison chaplain and his wife, Weaver realizes she is living her ministry, but not by preaching: God has brought her to a place where others are comforted by the peace she carries with her, a peace made possible by her faith. The experience for her husband and young children is more about survival, while Brennecke faces his own spiritual crisis, as his best efforts as an attorney leave a woman he knows to be innocent in prison, and two children without their loving mother.

Myself, I was struck by the universal nature of the messages:  There are things you have no control over; your only option is to control how you respond, for example.

Three personal tales of women ultimately exonerated of infant shaking have been published in the past year—the stories of Mary Weaver, Audrey Edmunds, and Heather Toomey—all of them moving and sobering. I do look forward to wrapping up my own book and adding it to the shelves, although my protagonist was never exonerated, alas.

What I really want is for the people who make these diagnoses and pursue these prosecutions to  think more carefully when presented with cases of infant head injury. I am so weary of innocent parents and babysitters flattened by the opinions of people who have never even heard what the caretaker had to say.

I posted a blog entry about Weaver’s case this past spring, and the National Registry of Exonerations has posted this summary of her story.

If you are not familiar with the debate surrounding shaken baby syndrome and infant head trauma, please see the home page of this site.

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Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, Falsely accused, SBS, shaken baby syndrome

“Scenes of a Crime” Hits Home, Hard

Dr. ScenesOfACrime copyAfter watching “Scenes of a Crime” over the weekend, I now know why this potent documentary has garnered so much praise.  Filmmakers Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh have interspersed actual footage from the lengthy police interrogation of an accused father in Troy, New York, with excerpts from Reid Technique training films and commentary by key players in the case. The result is a clean, careful, and gripping illustration of how a man can be manipulated into confessing to a crime he didn’t commit. The film is especially relevant in the child abuse arena, as it also documents a hasty and inaccurate diagnosis of inflicted infant head trauma that triggers a legal nightmare. As explained in a film review by astute critic Kenneth Turan at the Los Angeles Times:

What is perhaps most remarkable about this case is the way it began. When police went to the hospital to look into the death of [Adrian] Thomas’ son, they were met by Dr. Walter Edge, who not only told them that the infant had died of a fractured skull but added, in no uncertain terms, “somebody murdered this child.” Roused to action by this declaration, detectives looked around for likely suspects, saw one in the infant’s very large father, and turned the situation into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Armed with the zeal of the righteous, they believed nothing would do unless Thomas could be made to confess in exactly the way they thought he should. Which is what eventually happened.

At the risk of ruining the suspense, Thomas’s son Matthew did not in fact have a fractured skull—nor did he show any bruising, grip marks, or other external signs of either shaking or impact—and laboratory tests later revealed a serious systemic infection, missed by not only the treating doctors but also the pathologist who performed the autopsy. adrianThomasThe most chilling aspect of “Scenes” is the unshakeable confidence of the police and prosecutors, who never look back even as the medical evidence unravels. In the course of a 9-hour interrogation over two days, detectives Adam Mason and Ronald Fountain lie to their suspect—repeatedly and cruelly—threaten to target his wife, argue with him, pretend to befriend him, pray with him, hug him, and flatly reject his repeated denials. “You want to save your son’s life, man?” Mason asks at one point, “Why are you holding out on me?” scalesThe detectives start their investigation with two suspects, Thomas and his wife, the only adults in the apartment when Matthew’s breathing problems started. They eventually tell Thomas, falsely, that his wife is blaming him, and if he doesn’t confess they will go after her. “My wife is a good wife,” he tells them. “I don’t believe my wife did that, but if it comes down to it, I’ll take the blame for it.” Detectives explain that he can’t just say he wants to take the blame, he has to tell them exactly how it happened, convince them that he did it. Viewers of the film have an advantage over members of the jury when watching the interrogation footage, a commentary by sociologist Richard Ofshe, emeritus professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who has spent decades studying why innocent people make false confessions. Thomas’s attorneys planned to call Ofshe to the stand, but Judge Andrew Ceresia approved a prosecution motion to exclude his testimony. After watching “Scenes,” I found myself more annoyed than usual by news coverage that treats the prosecution version of an infant head injury as truth, like the case summary provided in the report filed by Bob Gardinier at the Times Union in 2012, when an appeals court rejected Thomas’s petition:

Three times, Thomas threw his son on a bed in September 2008, inflicting brain injuries that resulted in the infant’s death. The defense maintained the baby died from sepsis, an aggressive bacterial blood infection.

I don’t know how the wildly different opinions about cause of death were presented in court, but Rensselaer County assistant district attorney Arthur Glass explains on camera that prosecution pathologist Dr. Michael Sikirica did not deny that the child had a systemic infection—although he did not mention it in his autopsy report—but the doctor believed that “the sepsis was secondary to the head trauma.”

Melissa Calusinski

Melissa Calusinski

This resistance to new input was echoed this past summer in a prosecutor’s response in Lake County, Illinois, after a new coroner, Dr. Thomas Rudd, reopened the 2011 murder conviction of day care worker Melissa Calusinski. Unconvinced by the original reports and slides, Rudd prepared a set of iron stains, which confirmed the presence of an older brain injury the day the boy quit breathing in Calusinki’s care, in January of 2009. Although even the original pathologist, Dr. Eupil Choi, agrees with the new findings, the state is fighting a new trial for Calusinki, according to this report by Ruth Fuller in the Chicago Sun Times:

Lake County’s top prosecutor said that even if the new findings of Choi are correct, Calusinski should still be held accountable for Benjamin’s death if her actions, at the now closed Minee Subee in the Park day care center, exacerbated his injury. Lake County State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim, elected to the job in 2012, has worked to restore the reputation of an office beset with several wrongful convictions, a record that has drawn national attention. But in Calusinski’s case, Nerheim said he reviewed the new findings and believe they simply rehash the defense’s arguments at trial. Nerheim said he has found nothing to give him pause about the guilty verdict.

Like Thomas’s attorneys, Calusinski’s defense team had consulted forensic neuropathologist Dr. Jan Leestma. In Thomas’s case, Leestma requested additional tests that confirmed an infection that was caught in the initial blood work but never followed up. In Calusinski’s case, Leestma concluded from the original reports, photographs, and slides that the toddler had an older brain bleed the day he died, as confirmed later by Rudd’s further analysis. From the 2011 trial coverage by Tony Gordon at the Daily Herald:

Leestma said it was possible Benjamin had severely aggravated the existing injury by throwing himself backward and striking his head on the floor, as the defense has claimed throughout the case. He also dismissed the notion of the force that killed the toddler being equal to a one- to two-story fall, saying the injuries an infant would suffer from such an event would be dramatically more severe than what killed Benjamin.

Like Thomas, Calusinski had broken down after hours of interrogation and given the police the story they were after, the “confession” that sealed her conviction.

January 2015 update:  48 Hours has prepared a riveting documentary about Melissa Calusinki, “Blaming Melissa.”

I am grateful to the people who made “Scenes of a Crime,” which I think will help educate the public about the reality of coerced confessions. I wish only that the film had also been able to address the unanswered question:  Why the doctors were so sure Matthew Thomas had been murdered. (If you don’t know the almost certain answer, please see the home page of this site.) You can rent “Scenes of a Crime” through a number of on-line sources, as described on the home video page of the film’s web site.

February 2014 update:  An appeals court has vacated Mr. Thomas’s conviction, reported here. You can read the decision here. June 2014 update:  Adrian Thomas was found innocent in a second trial, reported here.

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Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, coerced confessions, Falsely accused, parents accused, Reid Technique, SBS, shaken baby syndrome