Category Archives: parents accused

Jury Frees Accused Father, and More

Richard Britts and his daughters-courtesy of Richard Britts

Richard Britts and his daughters
-courtesy of Richard Britts

Illinois father Richard Britts has been cleared of shaking accusations, two years after his younger daughter, three months old at the time, suffered a seizure while in his care. Jurors acquitted him earlier this month after hearing testimony from both prosecution doctors and forensic pathologist Dr. John Plunkett. The child seems to have fully recovered from the incident.

Reporter Patrick Yeagle’s touching and insightful treatment in the Illinois Times makes this observation: 

It’s the latest case calling into question “shaken baby syndrome” – a triad of symptoms that some doctors say can only be caused by violent shaking. Other doctors, however, say existing medical problems can cause the same symptoms, casting doubt on a diagnosis that has landed several people nationwide behind bars.

A Twin Case in Jersalem

A report in The Jersalem Post (“Israel’s best-selling English daily and most-read English website”) offers an unusual slant on a shaking diagnosis with this statement:

Shaken baby syndrome is an intermediate condition between an accident and physical abuse of children.

In the article’s focus case, a father is facing a manslaughter charge in the death of his 4-month-old son, who with his twin sister was rushed to the hospital in January with “internal injuries,” including bone fractures.

The news report explains the prosecution’s thinking:

The state said it will argue that the death was caused unintentionally, but that the father did intentionally commit acts of violence against the baby who died and that those acts of violence did cause the baby’s death, making an allegation of manslaughter appropriate.

A Successful Appeal

An appeals court in Florida has partially reversed a shaking conviction, ordering a new trial because the first judge had excluded biomechanical testimony. The published opinion focuses on what Florida law allows in the testimony of a biomechanics expert. The key paragraph opens:

Kieran Lloyd, who at 7 months eagerly provided data on repetitive bouncing motions by playing in a commercial jumping toy.

Florida courts have held that a biomechanics expert is not qualified to give a medical opinion regarding the extent of an injury. Stockwell v. Drake, 901 So. 2d 974, 976 (Fla. 4th DCA 2005); Mattek v. White, 695 So. 2d 942, 943 (Fla. 4th DCA 1997). However, it has been recognized that a biomechanics expert is qualified to offer an opinion as to causation if the mechanism of injury falls within the field of biomechanics. See Houghton v. Bond, 680 So. 2d 514, 521 (Fla. 1st DCA 1996) (holding that the defense’s biomechanics expert was qualified to testify that 90% of the plaintiff motorist’s injuries were caused by his hitting the dashboard as a result of his failure to wear a seatbelt because the expert was not offering a medical opinion based on brain anatomy and function); Behn v. State, 621 So. 2d 534, 536 (Fla. 1st DCA 1993) (recognizing that an expert in the field of biomechanics would be qualified to testify that a delay in an automobile accident would have altered the fatal consequences)..

The expert whose opinion was prohibited is biomechanic John Lloyd, PhD, whose most recent paper I described in this blog posting. The key paragraph of the opinion concludes:

In this case, Dr. Lloyd was not offering a medical opinion as to the extent of the victim’s brain injury, a matter which was not in dispute. Rather, based upon his biomechanical studies, he opined that (1) a child of the victim’s height and weight could have sustained similar brain injuries by falling out of a day bed; and (2) shaking alone could not have caused such injuries. We conclude Dr. Lloyd was qualified to offer these opinions as to causation because the mechanism of injury (falls and shaking) fell within the field of biomechanics

A Suicide Attempt

Finally, after a preliminary hearing that lasted four days, a California judge has ordered a foster father to stand trial for murder and child abuse in an especially murky case. The defendant called 911 in November of 2010 with a report that a baby was choking on milk. During interrogation later he said he had accidentally knocked the child from the table in his bouncy chair.

Vacaville Reporter Ryan Chalk summarized the medical testimony in a news story, no longer on line, in The Reporter:

Wednesday saw the conclusion of testimony from Dr. Michelle Jorden, a forensic neuropathologist.

Jorden testified that it was her opinion that Buddy had suffered a traumatic brain injury leading up to his choking episode.

“I think it’s a combination of shaking and impact,” Jorden testified as to the cause of the injuries.

And from another day’s coverage:

Dr. Rachel Gilgoff, a child abuse pediatrician, testified that “both sides of his brain were extremely compromised,” as tests revealed he was suffering from significant bleeding and swelling in the brain.

“His injury is extremely consistent with abusive head trauma, or shaken baby syndrome,” Gilgoff testified.

I’m guessing there was  no evidence of impact, because there’s none mentioned in the articles.

The defendant, Reginald Tanubagijo, attempted suicide at some point before the preliminary hearing, according to The Reporter:

Tanubagijo had already been arrested and released on bail, and during that time, Officer Michael Shephard responded to the Tanubagijo home for a report of a suicide attempt.

Shephard testified that he found Tanubagijo slumped over with a bloody towel over his arm and a very large laceration to his wrist.

Inside the kitchen, Shephard testified that he found a note that read, “I killed Buddy.”

Other notes found at the home read, “I did killed Buddy,” and “Tell the judge I did killed Buddy,” the officer further testified.

The child’s biological mother has filed a civil lawsuit charging negligence by the county and others who allowed the defendant to be a foster parent, the most recent coverage reports.

The unnecessary pain of it all makes me sad.

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Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, Gregory Council, PhD, Richard Britts, SBS, shaken baby syndrome

New Cases Exasperate Me

Although growing armies of professionals and parents are organizing to fight the misguided prosecutions in alleged shaking cases, the tragedies continue.

Second Prosecution

A girl’s death nine years after a presumed shaking assault has led to murder charges against her father, who had already served time for the incident.

Charged in 2001 with felony attempted aggravated battery, the young father pled to a lesser offense and received a 15-year sentence. He spent six years in prison and was released on parole in 2007—but when his severely disabled daughter died of bronchial pneumonia in 2009, prosecutors charged him again, this time with murder.

A judge has heard the arguments and is deciding this father’s fate, according to the coverage in his local newspaper. I wish I had access to the original details, as the news report offers only this hint about what the parents said happened that night :

At that time, the child’s mother, Jodi Pinkas, gave an account of the incident that did not line up with the prosecution’s theory of the case.

Pinkas said Tuesday she was wrong and sorry for what she had said.

The news story also implies that the original diagnosis was based on the triad alone:

A St. Louis County, Mo., medical examiner’s report said the manner of death was homicide and the cause was traumatic brain injury and child abuse – specifically, delayed death due to blunt trauma.

Jensen said blunt trauma could include vigorous shaking. There were no external injuries.

After the disabling brain injury, the girl had been cared for and ultimately adopted by a great aunt, who has been an active voice in the anti-shaking movement.

Circumstantial Evidence

The next story is unsettling in many ways, including the rush to judgment.

A father of 11-week-old twins said he was feeding one of them a bottle when the boy started coughing and expelled liquid from his nose. The father told investigators he turned his son upside down, shook him, and slapped his back, but his breathing was “very much labored.” The man then turned to the internet for advice before actually dialing 911.

The boy arrived at the hospital brain dead and was diagnosed as a shaken baby. When police later seized the family computer as evidence, they found a number of searches just before the 911 call—including “when to call 911″—as well as previous searches regarding child abuse, and a child-abuse game described this way in the Oregon Live coverage:

According to the report, the game is “a simple DOS-based program where the protagonist drives around in a van/bus/ice-cream truck, picks up 10 children, and abuses them (physically and/or sexually) while trying to avoid attention and the police.”

The game had been downloaded to the computer and played once. While I’m repulsed by the description, if we’re to be judged by the games found on our computers, I know a number of young men who are guilty of espionage, war crimes, and intergalactic mass murder.

Like the headline-writer at Oregon Live, I reached an unsupported conclusion the first time I read the article, which makes this observation about the computer forensics report, submitted by the prosecutor, especially unsettling:

The report cites specific searches and web hits, including “father hates infant,” “How do I stop abusing my baby,” and “Parents of Newborn Baby Accused of Horrific Abuse.”

The second time through, I realized it makes a very big difference if these are search terms or the results returned, but we don’t really know. What we do know is how quickly people judge when the doctors diagnose child abuse.

Florida Plea Bargain

As Brian Bonds demonstrated a decade ago, even defendants with solid support structures can be persuaded to accept plea bargains. Now a young man in Florida is reportedly scheduled to plea this September in a short-fall case, even after a host of supporters, including the child’s mother, told the court they believe he’s innocent.

The Orlando Sentinel reports:

Leonard told investigators the baby fell off a bed, according to testimony. But doctors and a medical examiner say it’s impossible the trauma the child suffered was caused by a fall from that height.

The child’s mother reportedly testified, “I actually cannot believe he did anything wrong,” and his father told the court  his son “loved [the girl] to death . . . he wouldn’t hurt her.”

Pointing Fingers in Michigan

According to a report on the website MLive, a couple in Michigan is suing a day-care center over an incident in December, when their son fell unconscious and was rushed to the hospital. The suit alleges the child was “brutally shaken and viciously assaulted” at the center.

The MLive coverage implies that this diagnosis is based on the triad alone:

The suit alleges that Hurley officials found no outward physical signs of trauma on the child but he did suffer multiple hemorrhages and seizures consistent with shaken baby syndrome.

The police have not yet charged anyone in the presumed assault. Supporters of the family and supporters of the day-care center have both joined the on-line conversation, illustrating how a diagnosis of child abuse can poison a community.

I am definitely putting this case in my files. I hope it can make it into the medical literature, because I have heard respected child-abuse experts report that shakings are virtually unheard-of at centers with multiple caretakers.

There are other new cases, of course, but these four seemed to have lessons with them.

-Sue Luttner

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Filed under Lonnie Leonard, parents accused, SBS, shaken baby syndrome, Torrence Rogers

Exonerations: Brian Banks Didn’t Do It; The Dingo Did

“A Dingo Took My Baby.”  Photo courtesy of http://www.australian-wildlife.com/Dingo-information.html

Two high-profile exonerations have brought criminal injustice into the headlines this summer:  In southern California on May 24, a judge cleared the record of football player Brian Banks, after the woman who accused him of rape recanted. And in Australia on June 11, authorities officially declared that a dingo really did kill Azaria Chamberlain, the infant whose 1980 disappearance on a family camping trip led to a media frenzy and the mother’s murder conviction.

Brian Banks

On the advice of his attorney, Banks plea bargained ten years ago when charged with rape, rather than risk a possible 25-year sentence if convicted at trial. He had already spent more than five years in prison and was on probation with an ankle monitor when he was contacted by his former accuser, who was ready to recant.

The California Innocence Project helped with Banks’s appeal, which associate director Jeff Chinn says has generated more publicity by far than any other case they’ve worked on. The office had no trouble keeping up press files on Ken Marsh, released in 2004 after serving 21 years in a child-death conviction, and even Shirley Ree Smith, whose infant-shaking conviction reached the U.S. Supreme Court last year, but “Brian Banks was next to impossible,” Chinn told me last week.

In the wake of the exoneration, Nancy Petro at the Wrongful Convictions blog published an insightful observation about plea bargaining by innocent people. A subsequent post by Phil Locke about how false confessions can happen criticized the interrogation strategy known as the The Reid Technique®, which is commonly employed with suspects in shaken baby cases. Locke’s blog triggered a fascinating response from Joseph P. Buckley, president of John E. Reid & Associates, the firm that’s trained investigators across the country in the technique.

On the day of Banks’s dismissal hearing, an Associated Press report quoted him making a comment that contains a double meaning for parents accused of abusing their children:

“I know the trauma, the stress that I’ve been through, but I can’t imagine what it’s like to have your child torn from you,” he said. “I don’t know what I would have done without my parents.”

Lindy Chamberlain

When Azaria Chamberlain disappeared from her family’s tent on a camping trip in 1980, her mother Lindy Chamberlain said she had seen a dingo running off with something when she went to check on the baby. Extensive searching produced no body, only the child’s torn jumpsuit. Investigators concluded that the rips had been caused by a knife, not teeth, and accused Lindy Chamberlain of murdering her daughter in the front seat of the family car before raising a false alarm near the tent. After two years of sensationalized press coverage, Lindy Chamberlain was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Three years later, however,  police searching for a hiker found the child’s missing jacket in a dingo lair, supporting the mother’s original story. The case was re-opened and Lindy Chamberlain was released from prison.

Last week, coroner Elizabeth Morris issued an amended death certificate that officially declared Azaria’s cause of death as a dingo attack. Australian journalist Julia Baird wrote in an editorial in the Australian edition of the New York Times:

We assumed an innocent woman was guilty. We threw rocks at a grieving mother. And a nation founded by convicts somehow forgot the presumption of innocence.

The case had stayed in the news in Australia for years, with early coverage that suggested the Chamberlains had sacrificed their child in a cultish ceremony followed by criticism of the mother for appearing too “icy” and dressing too well.

Public opinion went from hostility to sympathy, however, after Chamberlain’s conviction was reversed and her story told in the successful 1988 film “Evil Angels”—released outside of Australia and New Zealand as “A Cry in the Dark.” Meryl Streep received her eighth academy award nomination for her portrayal of Lindy Chamberlain.

In an article last week in the Australian edition of the New  York Times, reporter James Gorman said the coroner teared up during the presentation of the new death certificate, telling the parents:

“Please accept my sincere sympathies on the death of your special daughter. I am so sorry. Time does not remove the pain and sadness of the death of a child.”

For a time after her release from prison, Lindy Chamberlain, now Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton, lived in New Zealand, where Matthew Theunissen at the New Zealand Herald reported on her new project, a book about forgiveness. Like so many people who’ve been falsely accused of killing or injuring children, she says she would like the people who press these cases to stop. “I doubt that it’s ever going to happen,” she conceded, but:

“I’ve got a punishment I’d like to see for certain individuals who have been involved with this case, deliberately misconstruing the truth. I reckon it would be really nice not to do it again, to see them have to pay in a charitable fund for other victims for where the system had gone wrong.

“If they did that I’d know that they’d put their bad behaviour behind them and really meant they were sorry.”

®The Reid Technique is a registered trademark of John E. Reid & Associates.

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Filed under "A Cry in the Night", abusive head trauma, AHT, Azaria Chamberlain, Brian Banks, dingo, Evil Angels, Lindy Chamberlain, parents accused, SBS, shaken baby syndrome