Category Archives: Uncategorized

Good News, Bad News: the Tragedies Continue

Attorneys Khari Tillery & Paige Kenab, exonerated father Zavion Johnson  -photo courtesy Northern California Innocence Project

After maintaining his innocence for 17 years, a California father was freed this winter when Sacramento Superior Court Judge James Arguelles overturned his murder conviction, citing evolving medical thinking about infant head trauma.

Zavion Johnson said in 2001 that he had accidentally dropped his 4-month-old daughter Nadia in the bathtub, but he was convicted by medical testimony that the girl had been shaken to death. Then, in the years since his trial, two of the prosecution experts changed their positions. Prompted by Khari Tillery, a private attorney working pro bono, and Paige Kenab of the Northern California Innocence Project, both doctors provided affidavits saying they now believe a household fall could explain the child’s injuries.

The prosecution’s own filing in the case recognized that the original medical testimony, now recanted, had been key to Johnson’s conviction. In an excellent treatment of the exoneration, Sacramento Bee reporter Darrell Smith quoted a juror who said the panel had relied entirely on the medical evidence:

“All of the doctors said these injuries to Nadia could only have been caused by severe shaking of the baby… One doctor after another, they presented this united front that the medical evidence speaks… We agreed that it didn’t seem to fit him [Johnson]. He really loved his baby and took care of her. We felt he did do it, but that it was badly out of character.”

Zavion Johnson & Paige Kenab

Zavion Johnson was accused at the age of 18, released at 34. Because the jury believed the doctors over Johnson—and over 13 character witnesses, including the child’s mother—he has spent almost half his life, all of his adult life, behind bars. In an email after his release, celebrating the many people who had donated their time and expertise to the appeal, Kenab wrote, “Zavion took his first hot shower since he was 18 years old last night, laid down in a real bed with a real pillow, and from the moment he walked out, told us over and over again how different the air smelled. Thank you.”

The case was closed in January of 2018, when the state dismissed all charges, according to J0hnson’s entry in the National Registry of Exonerations.

Tiffani Calise reported a bathub fall

I’m eager to see this new thinking at work on behalf of other innocent parents and caretakers convicted by flawed testimony about short falls—like the six people I wrote about in my 2014 post Short Falls, Long Sentences, who all remain in prison.

I see progress, but it’s slow and halting. Child care provider René Bailey in New York was released from prison in 2014, when Judge James J. Piampiano vacated her murder conviction, citing what he called “a compelling and consequential shift in mainstream medical opinion” about pediatric short falls. Unlike Johnson’s prosecutor, however, Bailey’s refiled the charges.

Prof. Adele Bernhard

On the eve of a scheduled retrial last summer, Bailey agreed to a plea deal that avoided the risk of a second conviction and more jail time. Under what’s known as an “Alford plea,” Bailey stated in open court that she was pleading guilty to assault because she believed the state would be able to prove its case against her at trial. “She was not forced to say she did something she didn’t do,” pointed out her attorney, Prof. Adele Bernhard, director of the New York Law School Post-Conviction Innocence Clinic. “This is a compromise and not a very happy one,” Bernhard conceded, “but one that allows René to move on with her life and start to move forward.”

The court accepted Bailey’s plea and set a sentence of 12 and a half years, less than the 13 years she had already served, so she remains free but on probation.

In New Jersey, meanwhile, a panel of appeal judges has upheld the conviction of Michelle Heale, a mother and babysitter who said the toddler in her care had choked on a packet of applesauce. Her conviction was based on the triad, with no signs of impact.

In Kentucky, a young man has been sentenced to eight years in prison after accepting a plea deal—the newspaper report says he was accused of shaking but doesn’t specify the charges. He had reported an accidental fall.

Sarah Martin in happier times

And I’ve recently come across a 2016 murder conviction in Oregon, where mother and babysitter Sarah Martin is serving a life sentence for the death of a 7-month-old who quit breathing in her care. She said she thought the boy had choked on a whole grain snack.

On the bright side, a judge in North Carolina dropped murder charges against a Marine veteran who had been in jail for more than five months, after a local pathologist contacted the district attorney to say the man’s daughter had died of a rare heart condition. The video (click on the arrow in the opening image on the WFMY page) continues beyond the end of the text version, after this provocative statement from defense attorney Taylor Brown:

“It is extremely frightening to know that this could happen to anybody. And in fact if you spend 10 minutes on the Internet, you will find out that it is happening all over the country,” he said.

Reporter Erica Harper says she took that advice and found a number of disputed cases on line—the graphics show browser listings for a few of the classic critiques of shaking theory, like the NPR interview with Dr. Norman Guthkelch; the 2016 Washington Post exposé; and the Time magazine treatment of the Annie Li case in New York.

But none of these treatments seems to have had a noticable impact, any more than Lee Scheier’s 2005 treatment in the Chicago Tribune, Emily Bazelon’s 2011 treatment in the New York Times, or the 2011 collaboration among ProPublica, PBS “Frontline,” and NPR—all of which I’d hoped would help wake up the world to the ongoing injustice.

Because short falls are a theme of this posting, I end it with a video demonstration prepared by emeritus physics professor Richard Reimann, who used  an SBS demonstration doll to illustrate one difference between shaking without impact and a short fall. See also his analyses of various fall scenarios, with excellent illustrations.

copyright 2018, Sue Luttner

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

 

 

 

 

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Shaking Accusations Gone Wrong

The interrogation

A series of legal developments in the past few weeks highlights the devastating effects of misguided abuse diagnoses on innocent families.

In Sacramento, California, father Jesus Flores was found innocent in June of shaking his son Mason, but despite the verdict, Mason is being adopted by another family. Flores lost parental rights during the years he spent in jail awaiting trial.

The child’s mother, Sara Guzman, also lost custody, ironically because she refused to believe that Flores had injured their son. Reporter Lois Henry quoted Guzman in the Bakersfield Californian:

“They told me the only thing messing me up from getting Mason back was that I stood by Jessie (Jesus),” Guzman said. “They said I needed to go against him. But that wasn’t right. I knew he wasn’t the kind of man who would ever hurt his baby.”

After watching video of the police interview, reporter Henry disputed statements from both the diagnosing doctor and the detective that Flores had confessed to shaking his son. Henry wrote:

Flores uses a doll to show detectives how he rocked Mason earlier in the day to try and comfort him.

In the video, Flores cradles the doll, supporting its head and rocks him back and forth.

He tearfully asks if that could have been what hurt his son?

“Could that have caused it?” he asks over and over. “If it did, then I’m the worst father…”

One of the detectives would later testify that Flores demonstrated shaking the doll, causing its head to violently snap back and forth.

Not even close. (See video at bakersfield.com)

The reporter is right: Not even close. Check the video. The detective hands the doll to Flores at 12:03:38 am on March 22, 2015, and 15 seconds later Flores demonstrates the motion he will repeat through the rest of the interview—which I would call more up-and-down than back-and-forth, but certainly not violent.

The jurors who found Flores innocent heard about Mason’s complex medical history, and the new brain bleeds that appeared while the boy was in the hospital and then again in foster care. On the interrogation tape, however, long before anyone had looked at past medical records, the detectives never waver from confidence in the father’s guilt. Ignoring Flores’s obvious pain and confusion, they reject his story again and again, prodding him to quit lying and “accept responsibility.” Even when he breaks down and accepts their accusations, Flores says only that he “might have” rocked the boy harder than he realized, he doesn’t remember.

Another disturbing video was released last week in Detroit, showing a father’s pain at learning that his daughter had died—information he heard in open court when he was charged with her rape and murder. (On the page with the print coverage, scroll down to the second large graphic for the video.) James Lee Saltmarshall, 22, has now been released, after an autopsy disproved the medical findings that had triggered the charges against him. The video treatment includes a from-the-heart statement from Saltmarshall’s attorney:

“You have somebody charged with the most salacious thing you can charge him with, the worst thing, raping and killing his infant daughter. And now it’s a big ‘Oops’?…

“How do you fix it? I don’t know.”

In South Carolina, meanwhile, Wayne County dropped charges against an accused father who’d been in jail for two years—and indicted the babysitter instead. As summarized by reporter Angie Jackson in The Post and Courier:

Eugene Anthony Wright, 49, was initially charged with homicide by child abuse. At the time of his daughter’s death, he was accused of slamming her to the floor in his Dorchester Gardens apartment in North Charleston.

The Attorney General’s Office said after further investigation, it was determined that Wright could not have committed the crime and the charge has been dismissed.

The indictment of the babysitter, Jackson wrote, “does not detail the evidence against her.” I speculate that the key point is whether the effects of a serious pediatric head injury are or are not immediately obvious, a question still under debate in the journals and in the courtroom, along with the potential for serious injury in short household falls. Earlier coverage of the case seemed to put the father at the scene, but it’s hard to know the story from what’s available.

In a long-lingering case in California, foster mother Jovannee Reynolds has been sentenced to four years of probation, after a plea bargain in which she “took responsibility” for the death seven years ago of a days-old baby named Mikayla who quit breathing in her care.

Reporter Pablo Lopez wrote in the Fresno Bee:

On Friday, [defense attorney Curtis] Sok told the judge that the case took seven years because it turned into a battle of medical experts – one who said Mikayla died of shaken-baby syndrome and two who suggested she suffered her fatal injury in her mother’s womb.

Reynolds had told police she had “patted the baby on the back” when the little girl seemed to be having trouble breathing. Reynolds was originally charged with murder, but the plea agreement reduced that to manslaughter. According to the Bee coverage, prosecutor Christopher Gularte gave this explanation:

Because of the conflicting medical opinions, Gularte told [the judge] that the prosecution could not prove the murder charge. Instead, Gularte said both sides settled on the manslaughter charge because of Reynolds’ admission to police about patting the baby on her back. In essence, her use of force in patting the child was more than a reasonable person would do.

While I am pleased that Ms. Reynolds will face no jail time, I am sobered that the county insisted on pressing charges against her, and that the act of patting a baby on the back when it’s struggling to breathe has been declared manslaughter. Ms. Reynolds and her husband had started caring for Mikayla about a week before the child’s collapse, when she was only five or six days old, after her mother, a known drug user, had tested positive for methamphetamine. I’m guessing there were no actual signs of trauma, just the brain findings, or the news reports would mention them.

Updates

The Medill Justice Project has published a poignant look at the effects of his mother’s incarceration on the son of child care provider Jennifer Del Prete, released in 2014, after a successful appeal of her 2005 conviction.

A Florida court has agreed to hear an appeal by the Innocence Project of Florida on behalf of child care provider Stephanie Spurgeon, in prison on a manslaughter conviction in a shaking case. She the Tampa Bay Times coverage.

copyright 2017, Sue Luttner

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

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Shaken Baby Theory: Poking the Hornet’s Nest

The July issue of Acta Paediatrica offers a collection of free, live links to a volley of rebuttals published over the past four months to an article in March submitted by medical ethicist Dr. Niels Lynøe and most of the other experts who informed the 2016 Swedish report critical of shaking theory, commissioned by a government agency whose name is abbreviated SBU.

In an email exchange last week, Dr. Lynøe wrote that his team knew the topic was controversial, but they were “rather surprised” at the vehemence of the criticisms. “I also think that there was something positive with the critical comments,” he added, “because we got the opportunity to explain and explore some aspects more.”

Dr. Niels Lynøe

The March paper reported on the same research as the SBU study, an exhaustive evaluation of the shaken baby literature that ultimately declared the scientific evidence behind shaking theory “weak.” The analysis noted fundamental problems with the bulk of the published research—in a typical study design, the report noted, researchers had applied the criteria they were attempting to prove when identifying and sorting their subjects, so the results necessarily supported their theory.

Weeks after the Lynøe et al. paper appeared, Acta Paediatrica published an editorial  by epidemiology professor Jonas F. Ludvigsson criticizing  the SBU’s methods and warning of an “imminent risk” that the paper will discourage the reporting of child abuse and leave abused children undiagnosed. Dr. Ludvigsson conceded quality problems with past SBS research, but rejected the SBU’s conclusions and endorsed reliance on the triad:

“[The study’s] publication in Acta Paediatrica does not spell the end of the discussion. Instead, it is a clear signal that more research is needed. But for now, paediatricians should continue to alert social services when they observe a child with the triad, once other explanations for subdural haematomas, retinal haemorrhages and brain ischaemia and oedema have been ruled out.”

The next critique of Lynøe et al., in mid April, added irony to the collection by denying the triad itself. An editorial by violence and abuse specialist Dr. Steven Lucas and others charged that the SBU’s methods had become “untethered from the agency’s published methodology” and argued that the study was fundamentally flawed, because it had examined the question of whether the presence of the triad proves infant shaking. Lucas et al. wrote:

“The construct of the ‘triad’ represents a rhetorical fallacy known as a straw man, which gives the impression of refuting an opponent’s argument – the ‘triad’ is pathognomonic for AHT – when, in fact, that argument was never advanced by that opponent. We maintain that the term ‘triad’ carries no value for clinicians experienced in evaluating suspected AHT.”

In refutation of the straw man argument, I point out that both Joshua Burns and Michelle Heale were convicted based only on the opinion of child abuse experts that the triad proves abusive head trauma—these cases are not unique, only easy to reference here. I myself have researched dozens of convictions based on the triad, sometimes on only one or two elements of the triad.

Lynøe et al. addressed the straw man argument in a response to a different criticism (the response to Narang et al.), by quoting these physician guidelines, which clearly endorse the triad:

“If there is no history of traffic accident or fall from a considerable height, the combination of subdural hematoma and encephalopathy with edema or hemorrhage strongly suggest that the infant has been abused. If there are also retinal hemorrhages then from the medical point of view the diagnosis of abuse is quite clear.”

Also in April, Acta Paediatrica published an editorial by pediatric ophthalmologist Dr. Alex Levin, who declared, “There is a plethora of scientific evidence that retinal hemorrhages are a cardinal feature of abusive head trauma.” Among other objections to the study, he criticized the SBU’s failure to consider the various possible sizes and locations of retinal hemorrhages. “To ignore these descriptors,” he wrote, “is like saying that a rose is no different than any other ‘flower.'”

Dr. Levin also objected that the SBU team had ignored the “wealth of clinical experience” available from the community of child abuse experts.  He argued that certain retinal findings, even in the absence of any other evidence, should shift the assumption to one of abuse:

“A diagnosis of abuse should not be made solely based on retinal haemorrhages, but certain retinal findings make that likelihood dramatically high, so high that one must actively seek (or rule out) supportive evidence that the child has been abused and is in need of protection.”

Another commentary in the April issue, by eye and vision specialist Dr. Kerstin Hellgren and others, called the SBU report “misleading.” In an apparent endorsement of both the triad and the literature that supports it, the authors wrote:

“The SBU report concludes that there is only limited evidence that shaking of an infant can cause the triad signs, in contrast with the numerous reports describing such lesions in victims of verified shaking. It is unfortunate that the SBU panel neither included a paediatrician nor a paediatric ophthalmologist with experience of child abuse to facilitate a correct interpretation of the cited papers.”

In a response to both Levin and Hellgren et al., the Lynøe authors reiterated their commitment to objectivity:

“If physicians involved in child protection teams embraced the research question as if it was a generally accepted scientific fact when classifying cases and controls, this would have resulted in circular reasoning when estimating the diagnostic accuracy of the triad. For that reason, and in order to avoid conflicts of interest and circular reasoning, the expert panel did not include any experts associated with child protection teams. The panel comprised two paediatricians and one expert each from the fields of forensic medicine, radiology, epidemiology and medical ethics. All the included had long experience of assessing scientific work and were scrutinised for potential conflicts of interest and cleared by the Agency. The expert panel followed the guidance in handbooks for assessing health technology and any other panel reproducing the study would have probably arrived at the same conclusions.”

In May, Dr. Sandeep Narang and Dr. Christopher Greeley, both renowned child abuse specialists, published a column in the Acta Paeditrica series “A Different View” that lambasted the methodology, objectivity, and transparency of the SBU study. Like Lucas et al., Narang and Greeley declared the triad a “strawman,” with the statement:

“Physicians experienced in the clinical evaluation of paediatric traumatic brain injury and AHT do not diagnose SBS by a ‘triad’.”

Narang and Greeley also found it “troubling” that the SBU panel “was offered and refused external peer review by no fewer than seven international professional medical societies” before the publication of their report, and charged that the panel was biased in two ways:

  • One of the SBU panelists had testified before the highest court in Sweden, prior to the study, that “the diagnostic model of the ‘triad’ for diagnosing SBS ‘has been criticised’, and that ‘there is currently no clarity about the extent to which the components of the triad are specific to violent shaking’.”
  • A former chair of the SBU had also testified in the same case, and “has openly expressed scepticism of the diagnosis of AHT because of his personal experiences with a family member being criminally charged in a suspected shaken baby case.”

Another “Different View” column published in May, by Dr. Robert A.C. Bilo and others, focused specifically on the papers used to support the study’s conclusion that the triad had many “alternative explanations.” Bilo et al. rejected the cases and papers cited in support of these explanations, with three main arguments:

  • many of the cases would never have been diagnosed as abuse, because the children clearly suffered other medical conditions
  • some of the cases did not fully conform to the triad
  • some of the cases were in fact abuse misrepresented as organic causes

Like other critics, including Lucas et al., the Bilo authors accused the SBU of applying a double standard, because the reviewers accepted individual case reports as evidence for other causes, while they rejected studies with fewer than 10 cases from their main literature review.

Lynøe et al. clarified in their response that the papers cited as evidence for other causes had simply emerged during their literature review, and had been rejected from the main study for the same reasons as many others. They explained:

“From an epidemiological point of view, and due to random fluctuations, studies with less than 10 study cases are of very limited value. But when looking for differential diagnoses, one single case is sufficient to question the general assumption that when the triad is present the infant must have been violently shaken.”

The original study had addressed the question:

With what certainty can it be claimed that the triad, subdural hematoma, retinal hemorrhages and encephalopathy, is attributable to isolated traumatic shaking (i.e. when no external signs of trauma are present)?

The Acta Paediatrica treatment articulated the answer in two, subtly different conclusions. First:

“[T]here is insufficient scientific evidence on which to assess the diagnostic accuracy of the triad in identifying traumatic shaking (very low-quality evidence).”

That is, the literature supporting the opinion that the presence of the triad proves a child was shaken is “insufficient,” because none of the papers supporting that opinion ranked above “very low-quality.” Second:

“[T]here is limited scientific evidence that the triad and therefore its components can be associated with traumatic shaking (low-quality evidence).”

That is, the researchers found some low-quality papers supporting the opinion that traumatic shaking causes the triad—two French papers based on confessions—but no medium- or high-quality papers. Before reaching their conclusions, the authors had read and evaluated 1,000 academic papers, only 30 of which met their inclusion criteria. They ranked 28 of those 30 papers as having a “high risk of bias,” 2 of them as having a “moderate risk,” and none of them as having a “low risk” of bias (a flow chart illustrating the literature search).

In an over-reaching answer to their many critics, the Lynøe team called for a more scientific approach to research in the arena:

“We acknowledge the concerns expressed by all of the authors who responded with regard to child welfare and the possibility that the diagnoses may be delayed in individual cases of child abuse. However, we are very troubled by the disregard displayed by those authors to the significant methodological problems inherent in published research on shaken baby syndrome. With the exception of Ludvigsson, none of these authors expressed concern about the problems of circular reasoning, lack of comparison groups or the other methodological problems we identified in the systematic review. Where has all the critical thinking in research gone?…

“The purpose of a systematic review is to examine the quality of published research. With that in mind, please accept the substantial difficulties and limitations of previous research carried out by the ‘shaken baby syndrome’ and ‘abusive head trauma’ and help to add true knowledge by performing better research that overcomes the methodological problems.”

copyright 2017, Sue Luttner

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

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Shaking debate back in the courts and in the news

uphill-gunnThe landscape in the shaken baby debate is shifting again, with a series of developments that have locked in gains, slowed losses, and even claimed new ground in the struggle against unproven science in the courtroom.

In New York state last week, an appeals court affirmed the 2014 reversal of the murder conviction of care provider René Bailey, who said she was out of the room when a little girl jumped or fell from a chair. Prosecution experts had testified, however, that only shaking could explain the brain findings, and that children don’t die from short falls. In his decision reversing the conviction, Judge James Piampiano accepted the argument by Bailey’s appeal attorneys that changes in medical thinking since her 2001 trial constituted new evidence.

Last week’s ruling rejected an appeal by the state, noting that “advancements in science and/or medicine may constitute newly discovered evidence” and explicitly mentioning the evolving SBS research. Coverage in the Democrat and Chronicle led with the optimistic proclamation:

“For the first time, a New York appellate court has ruled that evidence once used to convict people in shaken-baby cases may no longer be scientifically valid.”

That same evidence failed earlier this month to convince a South Dakota jury, which found Aaron Bruns innocent of murdering his 3-month-old son Levi in what appears to be a pure shaking case. Coverage in The Daily Republic offers this summary of the father’s report:

During the trial, Bruns said he thought Levi was choking, so he quickly picked him up and tipped him upside down to clear his airway. Five minutes later, according to Bruns, Levi turned pale, and his eyes rolled to the back of his head, leading Bruns to run him to a nearby hospital.

fox9Other individual victories seem to have triggered a resurgence of press coverage highlighting the controversy. In Minnesota, for example, reporter Tom Lyden at Fox 9 pulled together a provocative treatment with the title “Critics, parents, question diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome,” featuring a local father acquitted at trial; a family whose own experts convinced the county to drop charges; and a mother now fighting the loss of her son. The treatment closes with a statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which persists in shifting the question from whether the brain findings prove abuse (No, they do not) to whether shaking is even dangerous (Yes, of course it is):

“There is no legitimate medical debate among the majority of practicing physicians as to the existence or validity of AHT/SBS…  Claims that shaking is not dangerous to infants or children are not factual and are not supported by AAP policy, despite being proffered by a few expert witnesses in the courtroom.”

presidentialsealThe assertions of the AAP notwithstanding, the real uncertainties about shaken baby theory were acknowledged this fall, briefly but officially, in a presidential report on forensic sciences in the courtroom, undertaken in the wake of the 2009 study that found “serious deficiencies” and called for “major reforms” of the nation’s forensic science system. The follow-up report, published this fall by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), notes that DNA evidence has disproved past forensic techniques like bite-mark matching and visual hair analysis, and it recommends strategies for bringing courtroom testimony in line with scientific knowledge. Footnote 15 cites an “urgent” need to examine shaken baby theory, which has not been addressed in past studies:

“PCAST notes that there are issues related to the scientific validity of other types of forensic evidence that are beyond the scope of this report but require urgent attention—including notably arson science and abusive head trauma commonly referred to as ‘Shaken Baby Syndrome.'”

For my posting on arson science, please see “Bad Science Goes Up in Smoke.”

SquierProfileNoCaptionAll these developments come in the same season as the decision to reinstate Dr. Waney Squier’s right to practice medicine, and the release of a literature review by a panel of Swedish scientists who concluded that shaken baby theory has not been proven, both of which have generated international news coverage. New Scientist, for example, published a news report about the Swedish study, with a sidebar on Dr. Squier’s case and a promo that nailed the character of the debate, calling it “toxic and polarised.”

The ripples are still spreading in the wake of Dr. Squier’s reinstatement. Even non-subscribers can give a thumbs-up to the letters to the BMJ in support of her, submitted by Michael Birnbaum, QC, and, further down the page, Dr. Jennian Geddes. I’m told our clicks will help the editors understand the scope of the problem. (If you haven’t done so yet, you can also go give a thumbs-up to the earlier letters from a group of more than 250 professionals and from pediatric radiologist David Ayoub.)

The Sunday Times last week published a more detailed treatment of Dr. Squier’s story than appeared in the early news reports—you have to register with the Times to see the article, but the process is free and reasonably painless.

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

Leo Ackley

The past few weeks have also brought a number of disappointments—in Michigan, a second trial resulted in another guilty verdict against Leo Ackley, whose first conviction had been vacated on appeal, and an appeals court affirmed the conviction of Joshua Burns, who has served his jail time and reunited with his family, although he remains on probation. Both appeals had been pressed by the Michigan Innocence Clinic, which has been focusing on shaking cases.

Leo Ackley’s family insists they will keep fighting for him, and last month the Michigan Innocence Clinic won a grant to help defend clients who may have been wrongfully convicted in shaking cases. Despite two disappointments this season, the clinic will surely keep up the pressure against a flawed theory that’s been winning in court way too long.

I hope the press, the public, and professionals in the arena stay tuned as the debate unfolds.

copyright 2016, Sue Luttner

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

 

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Dr. A. Norman Guthkelch Fought Injustice to the End

Kim Hart and Dr. Guthkelch, his 100th birthday

Kim Hart and Dr. Guthkelch  -photo by Sue Luttner, Sept. 2015

Dr. A. Norman Guthkelch, the pioneering pediatric neurosurgeon who first proposed in print that shaking an infant could cause bleeding in the lining of the brain, died quietly last week in Toledo, Ohio, a month short of his 101st birthday.

“Until the very end, Norman continued fighting for innocent children and families,” said Kim Hart, his caretaker and colleague and the director of the National Child Abuse Defense and Resource Center (NCADRC), who shared her home with Dr. Guthkelch for the last two years of his life. Last year, just before he turned 100, the two of them helped a local mother regain custody of her twins following a hasty diagnosis of abuse that had ignored the children’s medical histories.

normanClose

Dr. Guthkelch in 2012

Dr. Guthkelch devoted his final years to working against what he considered a misinterpretation of his work, the model of shaken baby syndrome that has been winning in court for several decades. “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,” he told me in an interview in 2012.

Dr. Guthkelch published his groundbreaking paper in the British Medical Journal in 1971, proposing that the shaking of infants, considered at that time a reasonable way to calm or discipline a child in northern England where he was practicing, could be triggering subdural bleeding and endangering brain development. The paper did not propose that subdural bleeding proved abuse, but advised physicians faced with unexplained infant subdurals to “inquire, however guardedly or tactfully, whether the baby’s head could have been shaken.”

Drayton Witt and his wife.

Drayton Witt and his wife, courtesy Arizona Justice Project

When he wrote that paper, Dr. Guthkelch launched an education campaign to stop the practice of infant-shaking  in Britain, recruiting the help of case workers who made home visits to new parents. He then pursued other professional interests and didn’t revisit the shaken baby discussion until 2011, when law professor Carrie Sperling with the Arizona Justice Project asked him to review the medical records in the case of Drayton Witt, a father convicted of murder in 2002 for the presumed shaking death of his son.

“I wasn’t too keen on this at first, as I’d retired at least a decade earlier,” Guthkelch sighed in a 2012 conversation, but he examined the records and was “horrified” to discover that 4-month-old Steven Witt had suffered a lifetime of medical problems that could easily explain his death. Dr. Guthkelch’s affidavit helped convince an Arizona state court to vacate the conviction and free Drayton Witt after a decade in prison.

Carrie Sperling

Prof. Carrie Sperling

Sperling, now an associate dean at the University of Wisconsin Law School, describes Dr. Guthkelch as “an amazing, gracious man,” who impressed her with “his curiosity, his unassuming nature, and his intellectual integrity.” She characterizes his decision to examine the evidence in the Witt case as “an act of true courage for the man whose work was at the root of the diagnosis.” Ultimately, Sperling says, “What I found most extraordinary about him was his unwavering and unselfish commitment to justice.”

After the Witt case, Dr. Guthkelch made a careful study of the medical records in a series of other shaking convictions in which the defendant still maintained innocence, and in every single case, he told me in a video interview in 2012, he found an obvious, non-abusive medical explanation for the findings. “And I asked myself,” he said, “‘What has happened here?’”

In 1945

Dr. Guthkelch in 1945

After exploring the medical literature, he concluded that “dogmatic thinking” had set in among child abuse physicians, who had come to believe that a certain constellation of brain findings, including retinal and subdural bleeding, proved abuse. He began articulating his protestations against the common knowledge, in letters to key players and in an essay to accompany an influential 2012 law journal article by a team of attorneys and physicians concerned that shaken baby theory is convicting innocent parents and caretakers.

Dr. Guthkelch advocated abandoning the terms “shaken baby syndrome” and “abusive head trauma,” which incorporate an assumption about mechanism, in favor of the objective term “retino-dural bleeding of infancy.” He tried to encourage communication between the two sides of the debate, he said, “But the arena is much too contentious, and the history too bitter. It’s quite tragic.”

Oxford, 1945. Dr. Guthkelch is second from the left in the back row, under the open window.

Oxford, 1945. Dr. Guthkelch is second from the left in the back row, under the open window.

Dr. Guthkelch began his career at a time of tremendous need. During World War II, right after his residency training, he served as an army neurosurgeon—during the Battle of the Bulge, he once told me, he staffed the operating room for 36 hours straight, breaking for food but not for sleep.

After the war, he returned to his studies under pioneering neurosurgeon Sir Geoffrey Jefferson, who had honed his own skills treating head injury during World War I. Away from the battlefield, Guthkelch found himself specializing in the very young. He became Britain’s first physician with the title of pediatric neurosurgeon when he received that appointment at the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital.

Dr. Guthkelch emigrated to the U.S. in the mid-1970s, working at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh until 1982. He intended to retire at that time, he said, but when he and his wife moved to Tucson, Arizona, the local hospital recruited him for another eight years of practice.

After the death of his wife in 2011 and his experience with the Witt case, Guthkelch focused his energy on the shaken baby debate. “I want to do what I can to straighten this out before I die,” he said in 2012, “even though I don’t suppose I’ll live to see the end of it.”

Moving to Toledo in 2014 gave him the chance to work on the front lines in the fight against the misdiagnosis of abusive head injury. “The 25 months we had with him was an amazing education, an incredible experience, and a true privilege” says NCADRC director Kim Hart. “We are committed to moving forward, championing his desire to correct the misperceptions of his work that have caused so much tragedy for so many innocent families.”

Contributions in memory of Dr. Guthkelch can be made to the National Child Abuse Defense and Resource Center.

For a profile of Dr. Guthkelch from 2012, please see Dr. A. Norman Guthkelch, Still on the Medical Frontier.

For a video interview with Dr. Guthkelch, prepared for a 2013 conference of accused families, please see Conversations With Dr. A. Norman Guthkelch.

For the National Public Radio treatment of his concerns, published in 2011, see Rethinking Shaken Baby Syndrome.

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

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

For a podcast interview prepared by students at the Medill Justice Project, see Setting the Record Straight.

For a review of his concerns regarding shaking theory in the journal Argument & Critique, see Integrity in Science.

For his own informal memoir, also published in Argument & Critique, see Arthur Norman Guthkelch: An Autobiographical Note.

copyright 2016, 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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GMC Sanction Triggers Public Debate

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Dr. Waney Squier

Last week’s decision by the General Medical Council (GMC) to remove pediatric neuropathologist Waney Squier from the medical register has triggered ongoing media coverage in the UK, including a number of voices speaking in her defense.

The GMC’s sanction followed a declaration earlier in the month by a tribunal that Dr. Squier was guilty of unprofessional conduct. Now she will no longer be allowed to practice or to testify as an expert witness.

Days after the tribunal announced its findings, human rights attorney Clive Stafford Smith published an opinion piece in The Guardian that likened the move to the papal inquisition of Galileo in 1615, a thought echoed a week later in the same forum, in a  letter to the editor signed by 25 medical and legal professionals in response to the GMC’s decision to strike her from the register.

Then The Guardian published a defense of the GMC process by Chief Executive Niall Dickson, who said critics had missed the point:

[T]he GMC is not and has no intention of being the arbiter of scientific opinion – the allegations we brought against Dr Squier did not rest on the validity of her scientific theory but upon her competence and conduct in presenting her evidence to the courts.

That same page contains more letters on both sides, including one by Susan Goldsmith, writer and co-producer of the film about shaking theory, The Syndrome. In another letter today, Clive Stafford Smith says that the charges were, in fact, about her opinion, not her behavior, and argues:

If we are right, then the people who mislead the court (albeit perhaps unintentionally) are those who purvey an unproven theory as fact.

Protecting Innocent Families (PIF), a non-profit that speaks on  behalf of wrongfully accused families, submitted a letter to the GMC in support of Dr. Squier, including an angle that I had not taken the time to address in my post about the decision earlier in the month:

The declaration also scolds Dr. Squier unfairly for her citations of the medical research. In one example, she cited the early biomechanical research of Dr. Anne-Christine Duhaime and colleagues (“The shaken baby syndrome: A clinical, pathological, and biomechanical study,” Journal of Neurosurgery 1987 66:409–415) to support her observation that shaking without impact has not been shown to generate sufficient forces to cause brain injury. The panel wrote that Dr. Squier had “completely misinterpreted what Duhaime had actually said,” a conclusion that baffles us. The Duhaime paper was a landmark in the field, because it was the first attempt to test shaking theory scientifically, and the results surprised even the authors, who wrote:

“It was concluded that severe head injuries commonly diagnosed as shaking injuries require impact to occur and that shaking alone in an otherwise normal baby is unlikely to cause the shaken baby syndrome.”

WindowLogoPIF also released their letter to the press, which led to some confusion, as one resulting story opened with the miscue that the PIF petition is in support of Dr. Squier: “Campaign group defends ‘dishonest’ doctor struck off medical register for ‘shaken baby’ evidence.” Christina England at Health Impact News also quoted generously, and more accurately, from the PIF materials in her treatment, “Shaken baby syndrome expert and world renowned pathologist banned from practicing medicine.” PIF has published the full text of its letter on its web site.

Both the BBC treatment of the decision against Dr. Squier and the coverage in New Scientist presented both sides of the debate, although some articles reported the GMC’s position without mentioning her supporters.

March 29 update: Columnist James Le Fanu at The Telegraph has posted an insightful item criticizing the GMC.

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

copyright 2016 Sue Luttner

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Enlightened Rulings, Outrageous Stories

IMG_4464A series of promising decisions has offered renewed hope for a few prisoners and parents while also highlighting some of the outrageous circumstances that can surround charges of inflicted pediatric head trauma.

In early January in Macomb County, Michigan, for example, the circuit court granted a new trial to Ronald Di Mambro, Jr., whose appeal had triggered the release of key autopsy photos not previously disclosed to the defense and therefore not available during his 2014 trial. The appeal that brought the photos to light was based on ineffective assistance of counsel. Di Mambro’s attorney had relied on a single defense expert, Dr. Bader Cassin, who agreed with the prosecution’s argument that a fall from a bar stool the previous day could not have contributed to the boy’s collapse while in Di Mambro’s care. Instead of believing his client and questioning the state’s theory about timing, the attorney opted for a defense of involuntary manslaughter. Di Mambro is now serving a sentence of life in prison without parole.

Dr. Ljubisa Dragovic

Dr. Ljubisa Dragovic

Ironicallly, the newly available photos answered a number of questions raised by forensic pathologist Ljubisa J. Dragovic, the medical examiner in adjacent Oakland County, who noted in his first affidavit that deficiencies in the autopsy limited his ability to date the findings. Close-ups of the tissues allowed Dr. Dragovic to refine his analysis. He now attributes some bleeding and bruising with more confidence to surgical intervention and concludes that a single event the previous day could account for the two other areas of bruising.

The published opinion granting a new trial recognized both the “Brady violation”—the state’s failure to disclose evidence—and the original claim of inadequate assistance of counsel. Local news coverage quoted prosecutor Eric Smith, who said he and his staff are “shocked, surprised, and disappointed” at the development, and appellate attorney Erin Van Campen, who called the ruling “very thoughtful and well reasoned.”

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A Family Court Reversal

A couple of weeks later in nearby Wayne County, Michigan, a state appeals court concluded that parents faced with termination of rights based on a diagnosis of child abuse deserve funds for a second opinion, at least in some circumstances.

A panel of three judges vacated the termination of parental rights in the case of JPY, who was five months old the day he fell limp and unresponsive in the care of his father. The written decision tells a story that began a day before his collapse, when the child’s mother took him to the family pediatrician because his left eye was not lined up with his right. The pediatrician sent the child to the hospital for MRI scans, which were performed both with and without enhancement and which revealed nothing alarming. Doctors sent the child home, with a warning to watch for breathing problems.

The mother said her son seemed warm and cranky the next day, eating only 4 ounces through the late afternoon. Then, while the mother was out on an errand, the boy’s father called 911 for help with a baby gone limp and unconscious. The  mother returned to find the father performing CPR and waiting for the ambulance. When the ambulance still hadn’t arrived several minutes later, the father drove them all to St. John’s Hospital, while the mother continued CPR in the car. From the decision:

On arrival at the hospital JPY was flaccid, unconscious, and had no pulse. He took only intermittent gasping breaths. After prolonged resuscitation JPY developed a heart rate. A physician noted that the infant’s estimated “downtime” was approximately 30 minutes, and that the child had been ill with upper respiratory infection symptoms during the preceding week. CT scan of JPY’s brain obtained that evening revealed no acute findings and did not suggest a traumatic injury.

well-loved bearA social worker investigating the possibility of abuse reported that family members were all showing appropriate levels of concern and she could find no evidence of maltreatment. When the child was transferred to Children’s  Hospital of Michigan, however, a team of doctors concluded that JPY was “a severely injured baby with subdural hemorrhages, bilateral retinal hemorrhages, skull fracture from abusive trauma.”

The parents requested funds to hire a medical expert, but the court denied the request. At the termination hearing, held only six months after the boy’s collapse, four doctors from the children’s hospital testified that the child had been abused—at least one of them conceded that he had not reviewed the St. John’s records—and one pediatric neurologist from St. John’s was prohibited from giving her opinion on the radiology. Both parents lost parental rights to both JPY and his older sister.

In the January decision that vacated the termination of parental rights, two out of three judges signed the opinion outlining their reasoning, which included this observation:

The medical records confirmed the existence of a profoundly important contradiction. On one hand, St. John physicians determined that JPY’s MRI and CT scans showed no evidence of trauma or any other abnormality. On the other hand, the Children’s medical experts determined that the same films demonstrated powerful evidence of abuse. Respondents’ counsel were incapable of resolving or understanding this critical evidentiary inconsistency without expert assistance.

The third judge concurred with the majority but filed a separate opinion to clarify that the right to an expert does not necessarily apply in all termination cases. This decision was “fact-specific,” the judge wrote, because, “As noted by the majority, the medical records indicated a ‘profoundly important contradiction.'”

A New Look at an Old Conviction

Suzanne Johnson with family

Suzanne Johnson with family

Finally, a superior court in San Diego, California, has agreed to consider vacating the 1999 conviction of child care provider and grandmother Suzanne Johnson, in response to a habeas corpus petition filed by the California Innocence Project.

Johnson has been protesting her innocence for nearly 19 years, since the day a baby in her care went limp and quit breathing after an accidental fall from a high chair. Johnson’s first trial ended with a hung jury, her second with a conviction and a sentence of 25 years to life.

Like the successful appeals in the cases of care providers René Bailey and Heidi Fero, Johnson’s petition pointed to a change in medical thinking about short falls, but her appeal team had also uncovered new medical evidence: A breathing tube had been placed incorrectly at the hospital, which probably contributed to the child’s death.

In early January, a superior court issued an “order to show cause,” that is, an invitation to the prosecution to argue against reopening the case. The order concludes that “Petitioner has made a prima facie showing that she is entitled to relief,” and orders the state to “file a return and to show cause why the Petition should not be granted.” The order gave the state 30 days to file a response, but an attorney has assured me that a lengthy extension is likely.

After Johnson’s sentencing in 1999, Anne Krueger at the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote:

[The judge] noted that he had received 40 letters from Johnson’s supporters who described her as a kind and loving woman. But he said he did not believe that [the girl]’s death was an accident.

Presumably the new appeal left the new judge with a different opinion.

The California Innocence Project features a summary of Johnson’s case on their website, and they issued this statement after the court issued its order to show cause.

Copyright Sue Luttner, 2016

If you are not familiar with the debate surrounding shaken baby syndrome, now known as abusive head trauma, please see the home page of this blog.

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