Category Archives: Innocence Project

With Their Own Nightmare Behind Them, Trying to Make a Difference

Edelyn & Peter Yhip

Edelyn Yhip, RN & Peter Yhip, MD

Last summer, Edelyn and Peter Yhip were preparing for the worst:  If they were both convicted, they asked each other, who would take their children, 13-year-old Mikaela and 9-year-old Jonathan? What would happen to their home, and everything in it, if they were both in prison?

But on August 23, after 6-1/2 years of accusations, the Yhips stood in court and heard the judge drop charges against them, because the state had conceded it had insufficient evidence of murder in the 2012 death of Jonathan’s twin brother Benjamin.

“We felt so blessed when the charges were dismissed,” Edelyn said when we got together in September, at a fencing tournament where Mikaela was competing. “Now we can grieve and mourn for Benjamin, and start to heal our family.”

In a video posted by the Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP), which helped with their defense, Edelyn reflected on the reality that set in after the “jubilation” the day the charges were dropped. Although it was “great to leave this behind us,” she said, “my son is gone, and our family is not the same. Our children are still in pain—they were alone and scared when they needed us the most.”

In a television interview in the fall, Mikaela remembered how police officers came to her school one afternoon and took her and Jonathan away from the family friend who’d come to pick them up—leaving them instead in the care of foster parents they’d never met before. “They told me that Benjamin died,” Mikaela recalled. “I was so confused and scared… I really missed my parents, especially at night.” She was 7 years old.

The Yhips were eventually able to transfer the foster placement to a family the children knew, but even then they were allowed only an hour and half a week of visitation, always supervised by social services—”It was like somebody was spying on us all the time,” is how Mikaela put it. Jonathan was not allowed to attend his brother’s funeral.

Edelyn said she now has two goals: restoring her children and changing how infant death investigations are handled. “I can’t just pick up and go back to normal,” she declared, “not after what my children went through, what Peter and I went through. This nightmare should not happen to another family.”

Peter Yhip told me the ordeal destroyed his own faith in the legal system—”You never imagine something like this could happen to a perfectly innocent family,” he said—but he has learned the power of community. When he and Edelyn realized they were accused of murdering their son, he remembered, “We were numb with disbelief. But so many people rallied around us, it gave us hope. I have more faith in humanity now.”

Yhip FamilyEdelyn is a nurse and Peter is a doctor. They paid off their student loans before starting a family, Edelyn explained in the NCIP video. When they found themselves infertile, Edelyn said, they adopted the infant Mikaela from China in 2005, and then their sons in 2010, when the boys were 18 months old. “Returning from Taiwan with the boys,” she beamed, “We felt like our family was complete.”

They quickly realized, though, that Benjamin had serious medical problems, with recurring infections and a diagnosis of failure to thrive that led to an implanted feeding tube. In the spring of 2012, Edelyn found him not breathing in his bedroom and called 911.

Local press coverage quoted the NCIP about what happened next:

“At the hospital, bone scans showed unchanged abnormalities suggesting a genetic condition, and the neurosurgeon opined Ben had suffered a stroke that caused his collapse,” according to the NCIP. “Ben was put on life support and eventually declared brain dead. Arrangements were made for organ donation.”

Despite Benjamin’s long and complex medical history—including a series of hospitalizations in Taiwan, before he was adopted—the state’s pathologist declared the death a homicide, citing the presence of subdural and retinal hemorrhages, which are two elements of the  “triad,” a pattern of bleeding and swelling inside the infant skull that is commonly attributed to “abusive head trauma,” previously known as “shaken baby syndrome.”

While their children remained in foster care, baffled and terrified, Edelyn Yhip was arrested at the family home, and Dr. Yhip was arrested at his clinic, handcuffed and led out the front door past patients in the waiting room.

The Yhips’ friends and family rallied behind them, setting up a web site and raising money to mount a defense. More than one family put their homes on the line, adding their properties to the bond, so Edelyn and Peter could be out of prison while waiting for trial. The family was reunited about a year after the accusations, when the dependency court found “substantial evidence” that Benjamin had died of medical complications, not criminal assault. Still, the county continued to press its criminal case for five more years, while the NCIP submitted a growing body of medical reports supporting the family’s innocence, as well as court decisions from other disputed shaking cases and the 2018 book, The Forensic Unreliability of the Shaken Baby Syndrome.

“We had a host of heroes in this case,” wrote NCIP attorney Paige Kaneb, who stuck with the case through all those years, in an email announcing the decision to drop the charges. “Great day, long overdue. The best part was after court when the Yhips told their 13-year-old daughter that this is finally over.”

The nightmare is over, but the Yhips are not leaving their experience behind. Both Edelyn and Peter say they hope their case might help move the debate about shaking theory forward, and help other families avoid a nightmare like theirs. “The triad has got to go,” Edelyn insists. “It’s not just the financial toll, it’s the emotional toll it takes on your whole family.”

This week, the Yhips are heading to Atlanta for the annual Innocence Network conference, April 12–13, where they are hoping to connect with other accused and exonerated families. You can contact them at

copyright 2019, Sue Luttner

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

Leave a comment

Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, Falsely accused, Innocence Project, SBS, shaken baby, Uncategorized

Shaken Baby Doubts Keep Surfacing

As the improbable accusations, heart-wrenching convictions, and dogged appeals accumulate, the press is running more stories about disputed diagnoses of shaken baby syndrome.

Prof. Adele Bernhard

Law professor Adele Bernhard

In upstate New York, for example, the Democrat and Chronicle has run a two-part series of what it calls “Watchdog Reports,” with independent text and video treatments.

Part I, “Shaken baby science doubt grows,” features a complex and thoughtful text piece about child-care provider René Bailey, whose 2002 conviction is now being appealed by Professor Adele Bernhard and her students at Pace Law School’s Post Conviction Project. The story includes an intriguing tale told by a new witness, the woman who later cared for a 2-year-old boy who was also at Bailey’s house that day. She says that he seemed to be re-enacting the fatal incident during spontaneous play, again and again with stuffed animals, as a leap from a chair.

Michael Tantillo Ontario County District Attorney

District Attorney Michael Tantillo
Ontario County, New York

The video offers statements from both sides: Ontario County District Attorney Michael Tantillo says the “vast majority” of experts are comfortable with the diagnosis once known as SBS, now called abusive head trauma. Defense attorney William Eastman expresses his skepticism without explaining that he was part of the team that represented Barbara Hershey, 67 years old when she was convicted in 2007 for the presumed shaking death of her 4-month-old grandson. Hershey was released in 2011, after her sentence was reduced in a proceeding that did not address the validity of the diagnosis. Like so many women in her position, Hershey has had the support of her family from the beginning.

Part II of the series, “Shaken-baby triad still rules in New York courts,” devotes both the text and video segments to Hershey’s case—the treatments are different, though, and the commercial before the video is only 15 seconds, so I recommend both reading and watching.

Decision Returns Quashed Conviction to the Headlines

ECHRA European human rights court, meanwhile, has declined to order compensation for accused mother Lorraine Allen, whose 2000 conviction for presumably shaking her son to death was reversed in 2005. Ms. Allen says she was not surprised at the decision, but is bitterly disappointed that she still has no visitation rights with her surviving son, born after the charges were brought and adopted out against her will.

Allen’s case is one of the last in which Dr. Waney Squier testified to the mainstream model of shaken baby syndrome, repeating on the stand what she’d learned from her medical mentors and colleagues: that the boy’s combination of subdural hematoma, retinal hemorrhages, and encephalopathy represented a shaking injury.

Dr. Waney Squier, at the 2009 Evidence-Based Medicine Symposium Denver, CO

Dr. Waney Squier,
at the 2009 Evidence-Based Medicine Symposium,
Denver, CO

Dr. Squier realized the model was wrong over the next couple of years, she has said, based on her experiences with cases like Allen’s and the work of Dr. Jennian Geddes. “By then it was far too late for my family,” notes Allen, although Dr. Squier did help overturn her conviction—after Allen had already served her time in prison and lost both her sons and her marriage to the accusations. At the time of his death in 1998, four-month-old Patrick had no bruises, grip marks, neck injury, or other signs of violence, only the pattern of intracranial bleeding and swelling that at the time was considered proof of abusive shaking.

The current coverage focuses on whether the vacation of Allen’s conviction was an actual exoneration, as explained in this report from The Guardian:Lorraine Allen denied compensation after being wrongfully jailed for killing son.”

The diagnosis in this case was made in the face of this extraordinary history:  On December 4, 1998, 4-month-old Patrick received his third round of immunizations. At 1 am the next morning, Allen called her doctor with a report that the boy was having trouble breathing. Dr. Barber made a house call and found the child a little “snuffly” and with a slightly elevated temperature, but otherwise fine. He left the home at about 1:30. An hour later, Allen called for emergency help with an unresponsive child. Patrick was resuscitated and placed on life support, but he never regained consciousness and died two days later. Prosecutors concluded that Allen had violently shaken her son after the doctor’s visit and before the emergency call.

For a solid account of the case, written last year for The Justice Gap by a consultant to Allen’s defense team, please see “Shaken Baby Syndrome—And the Fight for Justice.

Articulate Voices Speak Out

Back in the States, the Medill Justice Project has put together its best shaken baby video yet, including a rare interview with law professor Deborah Tuerkheimer, who has caused major waves the past few years with her journal articles and New York Times op ed piece.

Series Examines the Role of Social Services

And moving north again, the Weekend Telegram in Nova Scotia has run a thoughtful three-part series featuring a familiar tale:  An infant with previous health issues removed by social workers who believed the little girl had been shaken—in this case, even though doctors deemed the evidence against the mother too murky for criminal charges.

Part 1 “Guilty until proven innocent

Part 2 “Justice at a heavy price

Part 3 “Victims of tunnel vision,” which introduces the case of Audrey Edmunds.

Judge Listens to Parents

A High Court judge in Britain has declined to remove three children from the care of their parents, despite findings of subdural hematoma in each of their offspring. The judge seems to have been swayed by the family’s complex medical history, as explained in the coverage on the web site This Is Cornwall:Parents win battle to keep their children out of care.”

Misdiagnosis Prompts Bill

Finally, a family in the southern U.S. has enlisted the help of their legislator after social services restricted access to their older children because of an abuse report triggered by retinal hemorrhages in their infant’s eyes. A follow-up evaluation found no evidence of abuse and attributed the infant’s death to a bad reaction to medication, but the family was disrupted for 5-1/2 months while the paperwork caught up to them.

As the child’s mother noted, “We were kind of guilty until proven innocent.”

Television station KATC in Layfayette, Louisiana, offers both video and text coverage on their web site, at “Iota family fighting for new legislation after misdiagnosis forces call to child services.”

Business Goes On as Usual

Despite all of these developments, the accusations continue—and the interrogations and the prosecutions. Just in the last couple of days, for example, young men who initially denied any abuse have become confession statistics:

Father Accepts Plea Deal in Shaken Baby Investigation

Police:  Ogden Man Admitted To Shaking Baby in His Care

And a couple has been cast by the police and the press in the worst possible light after they sought medical help for their son, who was found to have symptoms “consistent with” shaken baby syndrome:

Couple arrested after baby found unresponsive

I suppose some or all of these people might be guilty, but myself, I see lots of room for innocence in all three cases.

-Sue Luttner

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


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

Dr. Norman Guthkelch, Still on the Medical Frontier

Dr Norman Guthkelch, Oct. 2012

Dr. Norman Guthkelch at Medill 
Photo by Sue Luttner

At 97, retired pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Norman Guthkelch has ridden more than one wave of change in the practice of medicine.

He remembers that his mentor Sir Geoffrey Jefferson, Britain’s first professor of neurosurgery, cautioned his students against relying too heavily on x-rays, for example. Jefferson would warn, “The eye has rested upon the evidence of fracture, and the mind has traveled no further.”

“X-rays created a meaningless distinction between ‘fractured skull’ and ‘no fracture,'” Guthkelch explains, “whereas the important thing is the degree of damage to the underlying brain.”

Guthkelch’s medical training was interrupted by World War II:  He went straight from his 1944 residency in Manchester into the army, and found himself neurosurgeon-in-charge of a small team attached to a general hospital. During the Battle of the Bulge, he was in surgery for 36 hours, breaking for food but not for sleep.

“That time gave me an advantage over surgeons with no battle experience,” he reflects. “I’d seen enough blood. Operating for its own sake was not an attraction.”

twinsAfter the war, Guthkelch returned to a fellowship under Jefferson, who had honed his own understanding of head injury during World War I. Relieved to be treating a general population, Guthkelch found himself especially charmed by his youngest patients, a delight noted by his mentor. “Jeff told me when I came back to finish off my training that my future lay in developing pediatric neurosurgery,” Guthkelch recalls. “He was quite right.” As Jefferson had held Britain’s first professorship in neurosurgery, Guthkelch in his turn received the nation’s first pediatric neurosurgery appointment, at the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital. “It was only by a few weeks,” he chuckles, “but I was the first.”

One of his observations was that children in neurological distress were sometimes suffering the effects of subdural hematoma—that is, blood underneath the dura mater, the tough but flexible membrane that lines the interior of the skull. A subdural hematoma does not invade the brain, but it can exert dangerous pressure on the tissues below. And while a pool of subdural blood may dissolve on its own, it may also expand, causing further problems.

Guthkelch published his first paper on pediatric subdural hematoma in 1953, when he wrote in the British Medical Journal:

“It should be emphasized that infantile subdural effusion is not a rare condition. Study of the records of the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital for the four years covered by this series shows that, of all surgical conditions of the central nervous system occurring in the first two years of life, only spina bifida and hydrocephalus were seen more often than subdural haematoma… Similarly, Smith and her co-workers (1951) have reported finding subdural effusions in almost a half of their cases of bacterial meningitis in infancy, and Everley Jones’s (1952) figures are similar.”

At that time, before CAT scans or MRIs, doctors inferred the presence of subdurals in living patients from the symptoms: convulsions, vomiting, and headaches in adults or fussiness in babies. The only way to confirm a subdural hematoma was to penetrate the subdural space. With an infant, the surgeon could pass a needle between the unfused plates of the immature skull. A problematic pool could then be drained, slowly, over several days to avoid a sudden change in pressure. In his 1953 paper Guthkelch described the procedure developed by pioneering pediatric neurosurgeon Franc Ingreham at the Children’s Hospital Boston, and reported on his own findings while treating 24 cases.

guthkelchQuote.The paper that brought Guthkelch into the child abuse arena is the advice he offered in the British Medical Journal in 1971, under the title, “Infantile Subdural Haematoma and Its Relationship to Whiplash Injury.” At that time in Britain, Guthkelch says, shaking a child in the course of discipline, “or not even discipline, correction, shall we say,” was considered acceptable. He recommended that health workers discourage the habit, as it was causing damage to developing brains. He cited cases in which parents had told him of shaking their child, and he referenced a paper by U.S. radiologist John Caffey, who had noted the combination of subdural hematoma and long-bone fractures in a few very young children. Guthkelch’s paper on shaking aroused not much interest in England, he recalls. He mailed a copy to Dr. Caffey at his hospital in Pennsylvania and began his own local education campaign. “My great allies in this were the case workers, who were a tremendous resource,” he says. “They were usually trained nurses, whom the health system would pay to make rounds in economically depressed areas.”

Although he likes many aspects of the British health-care system, Guthkelch has a major quibble with one provision:  Mandatory retirement for surgeons at age 65, a milestone that began looming for him in the 1970s. “I wasn’t ready to retire,” he objects.

normanCloseBut he had an obvious back-up plan:  The States. His mother had a close friend in Philadelphia, and he’d been brought up on Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. He accepted an invitation to the Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital, where he reports feeling immediately at home. “You Americans are very lovable people,” he grins.

He was surprised, however, to realize that his colleagues were diagnosing a condition known as “Caffey’s syndrome,” believed to result from violent shaking of an infant. Caffey’s paper on infant shaking, published in the U.S. a year after Guthkelch’s in Britain, had enjoyed far greater circulation, and few had noticed the footnote citing Guthkelch’s original paper. “No one was asking me about it, and I didn’t really have anything further to say about it,” Guthkelch shrugs.

He stayed in the field until 1992, as improvements in medical imaging  and surgical technique transformed the way doctors diagnose and treat problems of the brain. Neurosurgeons were collaborating with radiologists as they honed their abilities to decipher the lights and shadows of CT scans and MRIs. “I loved every minute of it,” he beams.

He’d intended to retire in the 1980s, when he left Pittsburg Children’s and moved with his wife to Tucson, Arizona. The local university hospital, however, asked him to take on a temporary position at the neurosurgery unit, where he remained for another eight years. Then he finally found time to work on his translation of the New Testament from the Greek, to organize a lifetime of bird photographs, and to spend more time with his wife as her health began to fail.

Drayton Witt and his wife.Courtesy Arizona Justice Project

Drayton Witt and his wife
Courtesy Arizona Justice Project

Then he was approached by law professor Carrie Sperling with the Arizona Justice Project. She and her students were working for the release of Drayton Witt, a young father convicted of second-degree murder ten years earlier for the presumed shaking death of his son.

Sperling says she was electrified to learn that the grandfather of shaken baby theory lived two hours south of her. She and her students were convinced that Witt was innocent: His son Steven had suffered a short lifetime of serious health problems, including hospitalization for seizures that were never explained, not even fully controlled with medication. Sperling was unsure of the reception she would receive from Dr. Guthkelch, “but he turned out to be an amazing man,” she says, “an amazing, gracious man.”

Guthkelch read Steven Witt’s medical records with growing dismay. He later told National Public Radio reporter Joseph Shapiro, in an interview now available on podcast, “I think I used the expression in my report, ‘I wouldn’t hang a cat on the evidence of shaking'” in that case. Sperling’s team successfully petitioned to vacate Witt’s conviction, and later the charges were dropped.

Carrie Sperling, at an Innocence Network meeting

Carrie Sperling, at an Innocence Network meeting

“It was Carrie who opened my eyes to how much of this is going on,” Guthkelch sighs.

He says he never intended that the presence of subdural hematoma and retinal hemorrhages, with or without encephalopathy, should prove that a child had been shaken, only that shaking was one possible cause of the bleeding. “I am frankly quite disturbed that what I intended as a friendly suggestion for avoiding injury to children has become an excuse for imprisoning innocent parents.”

Sperling suggested he read law professor Deborah Tuerkheimer’s 2009 law-journal article on how shaken baby syndrome is handled in the courtroom. “She certainly nailed it,” he says of Tuerkheimer’s work. Some months later he saw some “harsh, unprofessionally harsh” criticism of that paper. When he tried to talk about it with people he knew from the child-protection community, he realized how wide the schism was. “There are cases where people on both sides, both of whom I admire equally, are barely able to speak to one another,” he told NPR.

He contacted Tuerkheimer, and the two of them hit it off. They speak regularly on the phone, he reports, and “we find we are of one mind on this subject.”

Dr. Guthkelch meets with students from the Medill School of Journalism.Photo by Alison Flowers, courtesy of the Medill Justice Project

Meeting with students from the Medill School of Journalism
Photo by Alison Flowers, courtesy of the Medill Justice Project

After his wife’s death, Guthkelch moved to a suburb outside of Chicago, where he’s continued trying to be an ambassador between the two sides. When he learned that journalism students at the nearby Medill Justice Project had taken on a shaken baby case, he reached out to them. One result is a first-rate podcast  that includes interviews with both him and Dr. Robert Block, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. (2021 update:  The Medill Justice Project has reorganized its web site; the shaken baby material is no longer available.)

When Dr. Sandeep Narang, pediatrician and attorney, published an argument that courtroom testimony about child abuse is best left to trained child-protection physicians, not paid experts, Guthkelch wrote the introduction to a rebuttal by a team of advocates for the innocent accused. (For a quick summary of Narang’s article and Guthkelch’s response, see this page.)

Dr. Ron Uscinski and Dr. Norman Guthkelch,October 2012

Dr. Ron Uscinski and Dr. Norman Guthkelch
October 2012

Guthkelch also spends what time he can reviewing cases. “Let me be quite frank,” he says, “For a 97-year-old I’m fairly well preserved, but my memory is not what it once was.” Producing a medical report takes careful concentration and more double-checking, as does following and responding to  the literature.

But he perseveres. “I want to do what I can to straighten this out before I die,” he says, “even though I don’t suppose I’ll live to see the end of it.”

Which reminds me of something Carrie Sperling said about him when I spoke with her at the Twelfth International Conference on Shaken Baby Syndrome/Abusive Head Trauma in the fall of 2012.  “I felt a little bit bad about getting Norman Guthkelch involved, because I knew he would become controversial” she said in a video dispatch posted on the Medill site. “I did warn him, but I don’t think there’s any way to warn people of how the wrath can come down on you when you get involved in this sort of thing…  It’s amazing the effect he’s had on the experts I know, on the people I know.  I’m hoping that he lives a long, long time so that he can  meet with as many people as want to meet with him and talk to as many people as want to talk with him.”

copyright 2013, Sue Luttner

Dr. Guthkelch died quietly at home, surrounded by loved ones, in July 2016, weeks short of his 101st birthday. I posted this obituary.

For excerpts of my videotaped interviews with Dr. Guthkelch, conducted in October of 2012, please click on the image below:

If you are unfamiliar with the debate about shaken baby syndrome, please see the home page of this blog.


Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, Arizona Justice Project, Drayton Witt, Innocence Network, Innocence Project, Norman Guthkelch, parents accused, SBS, shaken baby syndrome

Cracks in the Stone Wall

audreyCoverAs ill-considered and improbable shaken baby convictions accumulate, the stories of injustice find their way out.

It Happened to Audrey

Headlining this week’s good press, Audrey Edmunds’s book has hit the shelves. It Happend to Audrey, written with journalist Jill Wellington, is a from-the-heart dispatch from the front lines of the struggle.

Edmunds recounts her horror the morning a baby she was caring for seemed to choke on a bottle and quit breathing—and then her disbelief and terror as a diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome sent her to prison. Anyone who has been accused will recognize the warping of reality as investigators, social workers, and the courts accept the diagnosis, ignoring actual evidence that should have raised questions.

Four years after Edmunds’s conviction, the same medical examiner autopsied another little girl, who had been brought to the hospital with recurrent vomiting in the mid-morning. When the breathing problems and seizures started 17 hours later, medical imaging revealed a brain injury that had gone unnoticed all day by a series of medical professionals—a documented case of the “lucid interval.” Dr. Robert Huntington reported this case to a medical journal, and was forced to reconsider having testified to immediate symptoms at Edmunds’s trial. A state appeals court ultimately overturned her conviction in 2007, after years of work by law students under the direction of Keith Findley at the Wisconsin Innocence Project. Edmunds recalls her thoughts during a hearing along the way, as a series of child-abuse experts reiterated why they believed seven-month-old Natalie Beard had died from a violent assault at the hands of her last caregiver:

“No matter what their research, theories, formulas or experience said about Natalie Beard, there was only one truth:  I did not shake or inflict traumatic brain injury on that child. The state’s presentation was pure conjecture. I was always thoroughly beaten by the ongoing lies.”


Katie Couric

Edmunds and Findley have taped a segment with Katie Couric, and are scheduled to appear on the Katie program tomorrow, Monday, December 10, at 3 pm, at least in my time zone.

Montana Innocence Project

Meanwhile in Montana, reporter Jessica Mayrer has published a well researched article in the Missoula Independent that considers the cases of three state inmates convicted of shaking infants.

Robert and Gabriel Wilkes, 2008

Dave Wilkes with Gabe, 2008, courtesy the Wilkes family

  • Robert James “Dave” Wilkes said his 3-month-old son Gabriel started making gurlging noises and then stopped breathing while lying on the floor of their new apartment. The prosecution convinced a jury that Wilkes had shaken his son to death. Now the Montana Innocence Project says their doctors have found evidence the boy suffered from a liver disease that could have caused his melt-down.
  • Michael Reim of Helena requested a trial by judge this year instead of by jury, because of the complex medical evidence against him. After listening to prosecution doctors who said Reim’s son had been shaken, and to defense doctors who said the boy suffered from a clotting disorder, the judge ruled that Reim was guilty of abusing his son.
  • Young mother and infant-care provider Nevada Ugalde of Billings said she left an 8-month-old in a crib while doing laundry on a June day in 2008, and returned to find him on the floor. At her trial, doctors testified that she must have assaulted the boy, as he couldn’t have suffered fatal injuries falling out of a crib 32 inches onto carpet.

Cathy Lynn Henderson

And in Texas the Court of Criminal Appeals has vacated Cathy Lynn Henderson’s 1995 conviction, also based on testimony that a short fall could not cause fatal injuries.  At her trial, Medical Examiner Dr. Roberto Bayardo had called Ms. Henderson’s account of dropping the baby onto a concrete floor “impossible” and “incredible” as an explanation for his injuries.

In 2007, however,  after reading Dr. John Plunkett’s paper on short pediatric falls and the evolving biomechanical literature, Dr Bayardo told the appeals court that he would no longer call the infant’s death a homicide but instead would list the cause of death as “undetermined.” Dr. Plunkett and a number of other experts also testified at the hearing. The court ruled in favor of Ms. Henderson, writing:

The court further found that Dr. Bayardo’s re-evaluation of his 1995 opinion is based on credible, new scientific evidence and constitutes a material exculpatory fact. The trial court concluded that applicant has proven by clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable juror would have convicted her of capital murder in light of her new evidence.

Interrogation Tactics Under Fire

Finally, with thanks to The Amanda Truth Project for the story, a teenage mother in Massachusetts whose videotaped confession was thrown out last year is now suing the city of Worcester. Police sergeant Kevin Pageau and his partner had bullied and lied to Nga Truong during hours of interrogation the day after the death of her toddler son. Reporter David Boeri at WBUR in Boston, which had sued for the release of the interrogation tapes, quotes the tapes and comments on them in his report:

Pageau: “Somebody hurt that baby, and we need to know who it was, and we’re going to find out who it was — either the hard way or the easy way.”

Truong: “I’m telling you everything.”

Pageau: “No, you’re not. Stop. Don’t lie to me.”

The detectives had no evidence. And the autopsy stated no cause of death. But the two detectives knowingly and deliberately told the teenager otherwise:

Pageau: “‘Cause that medical examiner told me that that baby was smothered. Does that change your story? We have scientific evidence that that boy was smothered to death.”

Pageau was not telling the truth, as he later testified. Lying to witnesses is often part of the playbook for detectives. But Superior Court Judge Janet Kenton-Walker would later rule that the detectives went beyond making knowingly false statements. She found they engaged in a pattern of deception, trickery and implied promises targeting “a frightened, meek, emotionally compromised teenager who never understood the implications of her statements.”

-Sue Luttner

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


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

A Critical Look at a Key Witness

Photo by Cheryl Havared Harrell

Photo by Cheryl Havard Harrell

The case of Jeffrey Havard in Mississippi could be the tip of a wrongful-conviction iceberg, according to an excellent in-depth report by Radley Balko at the Huffington Post.

Havard has been on death row since 2002, convicted of murdering the 6-month-old daughter of his girl friend. Havard said he was lifting the little girl from the tub after a bath when she slipped from his hands, hitting her head on the toilet as she fell. Private medical examiner Dr. Steven Hayne, however, concluded the girl had died of shaken baby syndrome. The Mississippi Innocence Project has been fighting the conviction.

The reporter calls SBS “a diagnosis that comes with the implication that the last person to be alone with the child was the one who killed her,” observing:

“Because the symptoms can only be produced by violent shaking, the diagnosis also comes with a built-in indictment of the suspect’s state of mind. It’s a diagnosis that does much of the prosecutor’s work for him.”

Balko has written about Hayne several times over the past decade, as the medical examiner has become more controversial. Hayne has apparently been the favorite pathologist of Mississippi prosecutors for years, reliably providing autopsy reports and testimony that work in the courtroom. New information about Hayne is now available—ironically, through the discovery phase of a defamation suit Hayne pressed against the Missippi Innocence Project after they started questioning his work. Balko writes:

“What they’ve found since implicates not only Hayne, but a host of police officials, prosecutors, even judges who knew Hayne was deficient and offering dubious testimony, but did nothing to stop it. ‘We’ve known for a while that there was a problem here,’ says Tucker Carrington, the director of the project. ‘But I really had no concept of the depth and breadth of the malfeasance. This isn’t just Hayne. It’s … well, it’s almost everybody. The state has known all along that it was pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes.'”

According to Balko, Hayne was already under a serious cloud at the time of Havard’s trial, yet the court refused Havard the money to pay for a second opinion. The story is astonishing, and I recommend reading it:


Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, Innocence Project, SBS, shaken baby syndrome

Another SBS Tragedy, Reflected and Amplified

I want to cry. I want to scream.

The November 26 issue of The New Yorker features a disturbing essay by a young man still reeling from the shock he faced in 2007, when his mother was convicted of shaking an infant she’d been babysitting. Victor Zapana would like to believe his mother is innocent, it seems, but he leans toward guilt.

According to the article, Zapana is the only child of a singular marriage: His father emigrated to the U.S. from Peru in the 1980s and joined the military as a route to citizenship. He met his wife, the author’s mother, while on a tour of duty in South Korea. His native language is Spanish, hers is Korean, and the couple communicates with each other in imperfect English—as their son describes it, “half thoughts, mangled clichés, fragments lacking prepositions.”

In March of 1999, when Victor Zapana was nine years old, his mother was caring for an eight-month-old baby in their home, a job she’d had for five months. She said the boy’s left hand started to shake, as if he was having a seizure, and she called the child’s mother to come pick him up and take him to the hospital. The boy was, indeed, seizing, and the incident left with him permanent and profound brain damage. Doctors diagnosed shaken baby syndrome.

Zapana was on a field trip with his fourth-grade class that afternoon. He claims no memory of sitting at the police station later that night, reportedly in tears, while police questioned his mother. The trial was delayed eight years for various reasons—including his father’s deployment to Iraq—and during the interval, Zapana’s parents didn’t tell him about the pending charges. He learned about the trial only after his mother had been found guilty and remanded to custody. He writes of those first conversations with his parents, in which his father tried to explain the unexplainable:

“Mom has lost a criminal case,” he said, “She’s going to jail.”

What criminal case?

“Mom didn’t want to make you worried,” Papá said. “She wanted to protect you. Everything is going to be all right.”

The verdict made no sense, Papá continued. She had told him she didn’t do it. He knew she didn’t do  it. Calling collect from Rikers a few days later, my mother told me, sobbing, that she was innocent. Feigning composure, I told her that I loved her and hoped to see her soon. I couldn’t bear to say that I didn’t believe her. The question of her guilt was bound up for me in a larger betrayal:  the very fact that the trial was taking place had been kept from me. Maybe she’d wanted to protect me, but it felt like an act of deception, a family conspiracy. How could I believe her?

After a few years, he writes, “I began to feel that I wasn’t being fair to my mother…. I hadn’t seen what happened. I’d read only the news stories and blog posts, and I hadn’t spent much time even with these:  looking at them made me physically sick.”

A college student at that point, he started reading the court documents and trial transcripts, and was disappointed to find nothing that he thought definitively proved his mother either guilty or innocent. The prosecution had called to the stand a series of medical experts who agreed that the child must have been shaken, immediately before the seizures started. After taking out a second mortgage to pay for legal fees, Zapana’s father could afford to hire one pediatric neurologist, who testified that the assault could have occurred before the child was in Ms. Zapana’s care. The expert had reached his conclusions based on a single CAT scan, however, and had reviewed neither the follow-up MRI nor the medical records, and the prosecution easily undermined his credibility on cross-examination.

Zapana also read about child-care provider Audrey Edmunds, freed in 2008 after the Wisconsin Innocence Project took up her case. The appeal was based on new evidence in support of the “lucid interval,” the same defense his mother’s attorney had used, unsuccessfully. Zapana learned that other Innocence Projects across the country were taking on shaken baby cases, but he remained unconvinced, writing,”Still, the new research only opens possibilities. It might establish reasonable doubt, but for a son craving certainty it proves neither guilt nor innocence.”

Zapana’s  mother is getting out early next year, and has instructed his father to sell their house:  She wants to start a new life.

“I wish I could move on as well,” Zapana writes, “but reading the testimony has forced me to recognize that I may  never know what happend on March 3, 1999…. Occasionally, I consider the possibility that [my mother] was wronged.”

My heart breaks for everyone in this story:  The author, who came of age under a looming cloud he must have felt but knew nothing about; his mother, who I’m guessing believed she would be found innocent, and who I hope doesn’t read her son’s essay; the author’s father, a military veteran who’s holding it together, not easily but apparently without complaint; the disabled child and his family, whose chances for normal lives have all been lost, and their hearts embittered by what could easily be a misdiagnosis.

The essay doesn’t offer many medical details, mentioning only bleeding and swelling of the brain and “massive” retinal hemorrhages. I conclude that this shaking diagnosis was based entirely on the brain injury, with  no bruising, fractures, grip marks, or other signs of assault—exactly the kind of troubling shaken baby conviction that Professor Deborah Tuerkheimer was writing about in her 2009 New York Times op ed piece, Anatomy of a Misdiagnosis.

I’m hoping the author keeps researching. It doesn’t sound like he’s read Tuerkheimer’s law-review articles on the subject, such as  The Next Innocence Project:  Shaken Baby Syndrome and the Criminal Courts. Maybe he will find the profile of Dr. John Plunkett in Minnesota Medicine and the analysis of shaken baby syndrome soon to be published in the Houston Journal of Health Law and Policy, now available at this link: Shaken Baby Syndrome, Abusive Head Trauma, and Actual Innocence:  Getting It Right.

Mostly I  hope his family has the chance to heal from the shattering of faith they’ve suffered, at the hands of sincere physicians and prosecutors who have been trained with a widely accepted but inaccurate model of a complex physiological condition.

-Sue Luttner

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


Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, Innocence Network, Innocence Project, SBS, shaken baby syndrome, Victor Zapana, Yoon Zapana

Communication, and Miscommunication, in the Courtroom

A courthouse in New Mexico.

Three legal developments this week illustrate that the steady push against unfounded diagnoses of shaken baby syndrome is having its effect.

A Grand Jury Listens in New Mexico

A grand jury in Taos has declined to charge a young father with the shaking death of his son, after hearings that included testimony by emergency physician Dr. Steven Gabaeff, an outspoken critic of shaken baby syndrome theory.

Reporter Chandra Johnson’s first-rate article in The Taos News implies that this was a triad-only case with complicating factors. The child was only three weeks old, and the parents had taken him to the doctor not long before his melt-down because he was congested and was having trouble breathing. On the day of the incident, the father reported, he was again having breathing trouble, with “not much of an appetite.”

Ms. Johnson quotes defense attorney John Day in the fourth paragraph:

“In recent years, the whole shaken baby theory has come under fire as misguided and wrong,” Day said in a phone interview Tuesday (Sept. 4). “There are a combination of relatively normal illnesses that could have caused brain swelling that put pressure on the retinal tissue.”

Montana Innocence Project Steps Up

In Montana, meanwhile, the Innocence Project has filed an appeal on behalf of Robert J. Wilkes, convicted of killing his 3 1/2-month-old son in 2008. The case against Wilkes rested on two presumptions:

  • his son’s brain injury was the result of abuse, and
  • the abuse must have happend in the few minutes between Wilkes’ feeeding the boy a bottle while visiting with the babysitter, who was also a neighbor, and the child’s meltdown soon after the father and son arrived home.

According to Gwen Florio’s refreshingly thoughtful article in the Missoulian, the appeal argues both that Wilkes received ineffective assistance of counsel and that new evidence shows his son suffered from a rare and deadly liver disorder. The coverage quotes the Innocence Project’s appeal:

“Over the past decade, opposition to SBS (shaken baby syndrome) has grown from a trickle to a virtual avalanche.”

Readers of this blog are likely to endorse the author’s final paragraph, about her talk with Montana Innocence Project executive director Jessie McQuillan, who “said she’d like to see Wilkes’ case added to the national conversation on the issue.”

Canadian Judge Blasts Reid Technique

Provincial Court Judge Michael Dinkel in Alberta has issued an opinion that both dismissed aggravated assault charges against day-care operator Christa Lynn Chapel and blasted the Reid Technique, an interrogation protocol used routinely by police investigators.

Denkel’s decision discarded Chapel’s confession to inflicting head injury on a child, which was delivered after eight hours of interrogation by officers the judge described as “a desperate investigative team that was bent on extracting a confession at any cost.”

Reporter Douglas Quan’s well-researched piece in The Calgary Herald quotes the judge’s opinion at length, including this statement:

“I denounce the use of this technique in the strongest terms possible and find that its use can lead to overwhelmingly oppressive situations that can render false confessions and cause innocent people to be wrongfully imprisoned.”

If you missed the post last winter about the interrogation that led to a dubious confession by teenager Nga Truang, you can see it here.

Not Everybody Listens Carefully

The Columbia Missourian ran a poignant story last week about a young father taking a plea bargain. He originally reported that his daughter had fallen out of her crib, and that he had shaken her to see if he could rouse her.  The doctors insisted the shaking had been violent, and the police heard a confession.

While accepting the father’s guilty plea on an assault charge, the judge asked the young man if he knew what he had done wrong, and the father said something very much like, “I guess that would be the shaking part.”

Side note: The National Institutes of Health infant CPR advice sheet begins its list of first aid steps with, “1.  Check for alertness. Shake or tap the infant gently.”

This story was but is no longer on line at

Finally, a tragic young mother in Virginia pled to charges of child neglect, again after changing her initial story under further questioning. Astonishingly, she confessed to interrogators that she had shaken her son, but the autopsy showed no signs of shaken baby syndrome.

Reporter Amber Lester Kennedy, understandably, I admit, treated the abuse as a given in her article in the Williamburg Yorktown Daily.

1 Comment

Filed under Damian Stow, Innocence Network, Innocence Project, parents accused, Reid Technique, Robert J. Wilkes, Sabrina A. Battad, Sabrina Battad