Dr. John Plunkett, Champion of Justice, 1947–2018

Dr. John Plunkett

Dr. John Plunkett, the forensic pathologist who galvanized a network of physicians and attorneys fighting for justice in shaken baby cases, died peacefully early this month in Minnesota, surrounded by family and friends, two weeks short of his 71st birthday.

“John Plunkett was an American hero. He should be remembered as an iconic figure to anyone who cares deeply about injustice,” said attorney Randy Papetti, who worked with Dr. Plunkett on the landmark Drayton Witt exoneration—only one of 50 successful appeals Dr. Plunkett had a hand in over the years, according to the official obituary.

Dr. Waney Squier

“John was a great inspiration to me and to a whole generation of doctors and lawyers,” emailed Dr. Waney Squier, a British pediatric neuropathologist who received the Innocence Network (IN) Champion of Justice Award in 2016, the same year Dr. Plunkett received the IN Lifetime Achievement Award. “He showed us how to think critically,” she continued. “He showed us courage, compassion, and humility. He taught me to wear cowboy boots and chew tobacco.”

Dr. Jan Leestma

Dr. Plunkett’s influence ran deep. Dr. Jan Leestma, author of the classic text Forensic Neuropathology, recalled that meeting John Plunkett in the 1980s—from opposite sides of the courtroom—helped convince him to look more closely at shaking theory. Leestma reviewed “virtually all the literature at the time,” he said, and changed his position. He then became an early and influential voice calling for more scientific rigor in both the research and the testimony regarding shaken baby syndrome. Dr. Leestma’s testimony on behalf of British au pair Louise Woodward in 1997 helped expose the nation to the emerging debate.

With his wife Donna at the premiere of The Syndrome

Comments about Dr. Plunkett in private and public forums—such as the Facebook page for the documentary “The Syndrome,” which captured Dr. Plunkett’s passion and sincerity on screen—offer praise and thanks from attorneys he educated, families he helped, and physicians he inspired. The word “hero” shows up a lot.

“John mentored me through a rapid learning curve,” wrote assistant federal defender Doug Olson, who described Dr. Plunkett as “brilliant… He was patient with his explanations and kept me on track… He was a maverick who understood science and stood up for what he believed in, but he also had a big heart and cared about people.”

“John was a thorough, detail-oriented expert witness [in multiple cases],” public defender Alicia Cata in Arizona posted on a list serve, “often not collecting a dime for all his work.”

Katherine Judson, an IN attorney, added a personal note, “And so kind, so generous, and fun, and funny.” Law professor Keith Findley, who worked with Dr.Plunkett on the groundbreaking Audrey Edmunds appeal, echoed that sentiment, describing Dr. Plunkett as “a deeply thoughtful and caring, but also fun-loving and quite funny man.”

Dr. Pat Lantz

Pathologist Dr. Patrick Lantz, taking the Latin approach popular with physicians, wrote, “Primus inter pares,” which translates as “first among equals,” a phrase commonly applied to the unofficial leader in a group with no formal hierarchy.

The families he defended described Dr. Plunkett as “warm,” “caring,” and “dedicated.” One couple whose family was shattered by a shaking diagnosis wrote in the mortuary guest book, “He was a wonderful resource but also a wonderful friend… Fly high, Doctor, you will be missed.”

A Pioneer in the Field

Dr. Plunkett encountered his first shaken baby diagnosis in 1986, in a death he concluded could have been accidental—the mother reported that her daughter had fallen from the arm of a couch while reaching for a shelf above. But the child abuse experts testified that children do not die from household falls and they believed the little girl had been shaken to death. Unconvinced, Dr. Plunkett started reading the published research about infant shaking and found, he once told  me, “the least scientific literature I had ever seen.”

He lost that first case, but had become one of the few forensic pathologists in the nation to have studied the literature and recognized the problems with shaking theory. He found himself called into other cases, increasingly disturbed by the power of misinformed medical testimony in the courtroom.

“I was a practicing physician,” Dr. Plunkett told me last year, “I didn’t write articles. But I had to start. People need to know that families are being destroyed because doctors don’t understand injury mechanisms.”

After the Woodward conviction, child abuse experts published a letter to the journal Pediatrics complaining about both press coverage that treated the defense theory as credible and the experts who offered it. “Let those who would challenge the specificity of these diagnostic features first do so in the peer-reviewed literature, before speculating on other causes in court,” the doctors wrote. Characteristically, Dr. Plunkett rose to the challenge, with his first published article on the topic, “Shaken Baby Syndrome and the Death of Matthew Eappen: A Forensic Pathologist’s Response,” in which he questioned everything about the syndrome from the specificity of the findings to the timing of the injuries. He followed that paper in 1999 with a case study presenting a child whose death was caused by a brain aneurism.

Attorney Mark Freeman

“I admire John for having the courage to stand up and say the emperor has no clothes,” wrote attorney Mark Freeman in an email last week. Freeman described Dr. Plunkett as “gracious—and incredibly helpful” when he met him in 2009, while helping a friend who was accused of shaking his baby. Although Freeman’s specialty is not criminal law, he has stayed in the network to help orient other attorneys handling their first SBS cases or pursuing civil suits.

Dr. Plunkett’s willingness to speak out earned him both personal and professional criticism, including criminal charges of “false swearing” in 2005, after his testimony helped win an innocent verdict in Oregon. A judge eventually acquitted Dr. Plunkett, who was slowed down briefly but not stopped by the harassment.

Researcher, Catalyst

In 2001, Dr. Plunkett challenged the common knowledge that children don’t die in short falls by publishing a collection of 18 fatal pediatric fall reports, of distances from 2 to 10 feet, which he pulled from the records of the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission.

With Dr. John Galaznik at a 2012 conference

Shortly after that, he organized the Evidence Based Medicine Symposium (EBMS), an on-line forum that allowed physicians from different specialties to communicate with each other about shaken baby theory. “John’s web contributions cannot be emphasized enough,” posted Dr. Leestma. “This list serve brought people together… Godspeed, my friend.”

“His work made progress possible,” emailed intensivist Steven Gabaeff, who has published his own papers on SBS (here and here). “He was generous, good natured, brilliant, warm, hard working… and he did so much to raise awareness of our shared concerns. He was the catalyst for getting the attorneys involved.”

In 2005, Dr. Plunkett published an editorial in the BMJ, co-authored with British neuropathologist Dr. Gennian Geddes, with the self-explanatory title, “The evidence base for shaken baby syndrome: We need to re-evaluate the diagnostic criteria.” (The same issue contains Dr. Lantz’s paper on retinal folds.)

Dr. Plunkett also coauthored papers with automotive-research pioneer Dr. Werner Goldsmith and biomechanics expert Chris Van Ee. He organized two conferences of the EBMS, and he recruited presenters for the 2013 World Congress on Infant Head Trauma, a forum organized by the publishing arm of the National Association of Medical Examiners to foster direct debate between proponents and skeptics of shaken baby theory.

At an Innocence Network meeting

Forensic pathologist Dr. Carl Wigren attended the 2013 World Congress because he’d been hearing rumblings that the common knowledge about shaken baby might be wrong—and what he heard there convinced him that Dr. Plunkett and his team were right. He wrote that Dr. Plunkett “is the epitome of the person I strive to be. Understanding medicine is one responsibility of a physician, but applying and transmitting that knowledge to assist those in need is the gift that John possessed in spades.”

Julia Jonas at the Innocence Project of Minnesota remembered that when she was a young lawyer, Dr. Plunkett was the only medical examiner in the county willing to take cases for the defense. “He never made me feel ignorant and often made me feel empowered,” she wrote, and she credited him with changing attitudes: “He has trained several of our local medical examiners to be the truly independent experts that they should be, and not simply another voice for the prosecution. He will be greatly missed, but his legacy will live on.”

At a panel discussion at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law

In a blog post marking Dr. Plunkett’s death and praising his work, Radley Balko at The Washington Post wrote, “Plunkett deserves credit for being among the first to sound the alarm about wrongful SBS convictions.”

Dr. Plunkett spent 39 years as a forensic pathologist, the official obituary reports. He directed the pathology lab at Regina Medical Center in Hastings, Minnesota, for 26 years and served as the coroner for Dakota County. The obituary does not mention that in his youth he played acoustic guitar in coffee houses, with a band called The Four.

He is survived by his wife of over 47 years Donna McFarren Plunkett, the love of his life, and sons Matt (Jen), and Ben; two grandchildren Fiona and Cailin; siblings Patrick (Anita), Marnie Olson (John), Tim (Lucy), Paul (Susan), Michael (Dawn), Ann, and Peggy; brothers-in-law Neil (Diane), and Russ (Tish); and many nieces and nephews.

A Personal Note

I had my first phone call with Dr. Plunkett in 2000, when he was about to publish his short fall paper. I had been researching shaken baby for two years at that point, after the niece of a friend was convicted of shaking a baby in her care. I’d been comparing the medical testimony in the trial transcripts with the scientific facts available in the medical journals, and puzzling over the gap. Could I, not a medical professional, but a technical writer and careful reader, possibly have identified fundamental problems with the evidence base for a well-accepted but unproven theory that was almost unbeatable in court?

Dr. Plunkett assured me that I had done just that. “You start to look at this with even the rudimentary elements of scientific thinking,” he confirmed, “And you say, ‘What is going on here?'”

He then gave me my first lesson in the physics of short falls, and I was hooked.

He became the medical advisor to my book, and for 15 years, my book proposal has promised he would write the introduction, an introduction neither one of us ever crafted. I guess I will be dedicating the book to him instead.

Copyright 2018, Sue Luttner

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

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The Forensic Unreliability of the Shaken Baby Syndrome: The Book

Arizona trial attorney Randy Papetti has brought nearly 20 years of experience and research to his valuable new analysis of shaken baby theory in the courtroom, The Forensic Unreliability of the Shaken Baby Syndrome, now shipping from Academic Forensic Pathology International (coupon for $50 off).

Papetti is not a criminal attorney but a recognized leader in his primary field, commercial litigation. In 2013, he was selected by Best Lawyers and his local peers as the Lawyer of the Year for “Bet-the-Company Litigation.” In 2011, he was inducted into the invitation-only American College of Trial Lawyers. His shaken baby work has all been pro bono.

Randy Papetti

Papetti was only doing a favor for a friend, he told me in a telephone interview, when he agreed to help with his first shaking case, an appeal of a murder conviction. The convicted father had reported a fall from a high chair, but the child abuse experts had insisted that shaking must have been involved. Papetti started researching the medical and legal arguments and found himself face to face with the difference between medical opinion and proven scientific fact.

Drayton Witt and his wife, courtesy Arizona Justice Project

Papetti won that appeal, and other attorneys started approaching him with their own shaking cases. He was a key player in the 2012 freeing of Drayton Witt, whose son died after a short lifetime of serious health problems, including a seizure disorder. It was the Witt case that brought pioneering pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Norman Guthkelch back into the arena, four decades after he lay the groundwork for the diagnosis by proposing that shaking an infant could cause subdural bleeding. Like Papetti, Dr. Guthkelch rejected the medical thinking that had convicted Drayton Witt. Guthkelch then spent the final years of his life fighting what he considered a “tragic misinterpretation” of his work.

“Witt was a powerful case,” Papetti said. “It showed how easily a mistaken diagnosis based on the ‘triad‘ can convict.” By then law professor Deborah Tuerkheimer had published her first journal argument against shaking theory, and her New York Times op ed. Papetti thought the tide was turning. “The information was out there, people could see that shaking theory was unreliable.”

Instead of reconsidering their model, however, proponents of shaking theory “took a course I never imagined they would be able to take, claiming there never was a triad,” Papetti marveled in our interview. In his book, he noted that changing the name of the diagnosis from “shaken baby syndrome” to “abusive head trauma” did not address the fundamental problem that the entire theory was speculation. “It merely changed the diagnosis’ name for legal purposes.”

Papetti said he was “stunned” to see how child abuse professionals have lashed out personally at defense experts and attorneys: ridicule at conferences, perjury charges, letters to employers. “That’s not the way the game is played,” he said. Attorneys in civil practice fight hard in the courtroom, he claimed, but can still respect their opponents professionally and maintain personal friendships.

In his book, Papetti traces the evolution of shaking theory in both the medical literature and the courts. He illustrates how the two have co-evolved, distorting each other, and he examines the cooperative relationship among child abuse experts, the police, and social services. He writes:

These institutional realities, not science or clinical validation, best explain how SBS has persisted and why the medical profession is unlikely to correct it any time soon.

“Things tend to get worse before they get better,” he told me, “And I’m afraid that’s where we are now, still getting worse.” At this point, proponents of shaking theory staff the medical schools and the childrens’ hospitals, dominate the professional organizations, and conduct the bulk of the research. Critics tend to be independent thinkers who have researched the literature and reached their own conclusions.  “The imbalance of power has distorted everything completely,” Papetti said. “At the end of the day, are you really asking a judge to not allow the testimony of these luminaries because a few brave souls disagree?”

So he keeps chipping away at a calcified theory with the facts, hoping to explain it all clearly enough that judges will see how decades of unproven medical testimony have led to a criminal justice crisis of staggering proportions.

Coupon with code for $50 off when you order the book before April 27

For postings about other books on shaken baby, please see “Flawed Convictions: Breaking Academic Ground,” “Forward, Into the Bookstores,” “An Important Story, Well Told,” and “‘Journey With Justice’: A Rough Road.

Copyright 2018, Sue Luttner

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

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From the heart, from the brain: A top-notch TEDx talk on shaken baby

Pediatric neuropathologist Dr. Waney Squier has hit one out of the park in her TEDx talk, “I believed in Shaken Baby Syndrome until science showed I was wrong,” published Friday on Progress Video TV.

While telling her own story with calm, compelling intensity, she also describes the pain inflicted on innocent families by misguided accusations of abuse and documents the refusal of the legal and medical communities to accept the unwelcome truth about their flawed theory.

“By ignoring the science and adopting an unproven hypothesis, doctors have done great harm,” she concludes, “and have led the courts astray.”

The talk opens with the story of Linda, a mother convicted of shaking her third child to death based on the presence of the triad: bleeding in the retinas, bleeding beneath the lining of the brain, and brain swelling. “At her trial, Linda was described as a woman of good character, a caring and careful mother,” Dr. Squier recounts, “But doctors—medical experts—said that those three findings meant that [the boy] must have been violently shaken” when alone with his mother.

Three years later, Linda’s conviction was overturned on appeal. “Her name was cleared, but her life was ruined,” Squier says. Her parents had died and her husband had left her. Her fourth child, a little girl born in prison, had been taken from her at birth and placed for adoption, and even after her exoneration, Linda was prohibited from attempting contact.

When Linda was first accused, the police had called in Dr. Squier, an expert on infant brain pathology. After examining the brain, she had endorsed the opinion of the other doctors, that it was a case of shaken baby syndrome. “They believed in it, and I believed in it,” she grimaces, “and so my report was part of the evidence that cost Linda so much.”

Dr. Squier says her own doubts about shaking theory started when another neuropathologist, Dr. Jennian Geddes, published research suggesting that the damage in presumed shaking cases resulted from lack of oxygen, not from direct violence. Dr. Squier recalls:

“Back in 2001, the Geddes research stopped me in my tracks. It wasn’t what I had expected. So I read everything I could about shaken baby syndrome, and as a scientist, I’m embarrassed to admit to you I hadn’t done so before. I’d been making this diagnosis on the basis of my uncritical acceptance of what was in the textbooks and what I’d been taught. I was startled to learn that there was no scientific foundation for the hypothesis.”

No one has ever witnessed a shaking assault that resulted in the triad, she reports. Laboratory research and biomechanical calculations have only cast doubt on the theory, and past experience with front-facing car seats tells us that whiplash forces cause fractures and dislocations in the neck, not intracranial bleeding and swelling.

After her realization that the theory was not only unproven but likely wrong, Dr. Squier started conducting her own research, and she started testifying for the defense. But her willingness to speak out against the common knowledge resulted in criticism from colleagues, scoldings from judges, and complaints to the authorities. In the spring of 2016, after hearings triggered by a police complaint to the General Medical Council, she temporarily lost the right to practice medicine, until a higher court reinstated her, declaring most of the first findings “unsustainable.” She is still prohibited from testifying in British courts for another year and a half.

The actions against her have successfully stifled the voices of dissent, Dr. Squier argues, leaving innocent families “defenseless” against their accusers. “Back in 2005, Linda had seven medical experts to support her. Today she would be likely to have none.”

Some other key points from Dr. Squier’s talk:

“So today, as I stand here, I am sure that shaking can harm babies, and we certainly shouldn’t shake babies. But nearly 50 years of research has failed to provide us with the justification to make the assumption that a baby who has the triad or any of its components must have been shaken.”

“If we do nothing, then ordinary people, people who have already suffered the tragedy of the death of a baby, will continue to have their families torn apart by incorrect and unscientific opinions…

“If we do nothing, this travesty will continue… this willful refusal of the courts and the doctors advising them to recognize the science that shows they are wrong.”

But you might have other favorite quotes. I suggest you watch the entire talk.

Copyright 2018, 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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Falsely Accused: Organized Parents in France Earn Credible Coverage

A coalition of wrongly accused parents in France has caught the attention of Le Monde, which Wikipedia calls “one of the most important and widely respected newspapers in the world.”

Association Adikia put up their web site just last month, although some of the members have had a Facebook presence for some time. Last week Le Monde published a letter from key organizers explaining who they are, what the problem is, and what they plan to do.

Here is a Google translation of the published letter:

We are wrongly accused of abusing our children as a result of misdiagnosis”In a tribune in “Le Monde”, a hundred parents testify to their fight, accused of violence on their children while they are suffering from a rare disease. They created the Adikia association to advance their cause to justice.

We are more than a hundred parents wrongly accused of abusing our own children as a result of misdiagnosis. Two and a half years ago, one of us created a Facebook group to tell her story. This is where we found ourselves over the months after experiencing the same dramatic situation.

While we consult pediatric emergencies for our babies who are uncomfortable, doctors detect signs a priori suggestive of abuse. These are mainly fractures, bruises, or bleeding inside the skull and eyes (subdural hematomas and retinal hemorrhages). These last two signs are typical of the “shaken baby syndrome”.

In our case, however, our children have various rare diseases. For example, the son of Virginie (creator of the group) is suffering from hypofibrinogenemia, a rare genetic abnormality of blood coagulation. As indicated by the report of the High Authority of Health on the subject, disorders of coagulation form an important class of differential diagnoses of shaken baby syndrome.

Unjustified accusations

The son of Vanessa (president of the association) is one of the many babies in our association with external hydrocephalus. Clinical studies suggest that this pathology may favor the occurrence of subdural haematomas. Marielle’s daughter has osteogenesis imperfecta, or glass bone disease, which can cause fractures. Emi has hypophosphatasia and her son has bone fragility associated with vitamin D deficiency.

In an emergency, however, doctors must diagnose quickly and act if they feel the child is at risk in their family. They make a report, which leads to the almost automatic placement of our children. They are withdrawn while we are taken into custody and questioned by the police.

As if dealing with the suffering of our babies was not enough, we must also suffer unjustified accusations of abuse. Worse, we must live with the idea that our babies will have to spend the next months or years away from us, when they are sick and need all our love. Their first steps, their first laughs are stolen forever. Strong emotional ties with parents are essential for the neuropsychological development of babies, as pediatrician Catherine Gueguen has shown. We have all had suicidal thoughts, but we must absolutely stand firm for our children.

The placements end when the juvenile judges finally feel that we are not dangerous. In a way that is difficult to understand, we are criminally prosecuted when the judicial expertises are carried out. Specialized maltreatment doctors seem to validate the violence systematically, even in the presence of rare and unknown diseases. We have a hard time getting specialists in rare diseases to do their own expertise, even more when the medical records of our children are seized by the courts!

The example of the little Luqman is characteristic. At 16 months, he spent 13 away from his parents. More than a year ago, he had hemorrhaging leading to a diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome. An extremely severe vitamin K deficiency (necessary for blood clotting) was quickly detected. It appeared later that Luqman had abetalipoproteinemia, a rare genetic disease that could cause such a deficit. According to several doctors, this disease could explain the symptoms.

Shaken baby syndrome

Today, Luqman is still placed, and his parents are indicted. For the legal experts who have access to the whole file, the signs presented are characteristic of shaken baby syndrome and the diagnosis of abuse is therefore certain. Can we really be certain that this disease, which affects less than one in a million babies, can not cause subdural haematomas and retinal hemorrhages?

We have trouble making it clear to the various speakers that the words of doctors and experts never have absolute truth. We must all show the greatest humility before the complexity of the human body. We do not know everything about medicine, far from it.

We have created our association – Adikia – to support and inform those unfairly accused, to make our testimonies known to the public, and to gain more weight in court. We would like doctors to take every precaution, as far as possible, and for the judges to consider all the elements of the files. Decisions as serious as long-term placements or prison sentences must not be made solely on the basis of medical evidence, however clear and categorical.

We would also like to be involved in improving the reporting and diagnosis criteria for suspicion of abuse. Our goal is to avoid unfounded accusations and unjustified placements as much as possible while respecting the sound and indispensable principle of child protection.

Virginie Skibinski and Vanessa Keryhuel, for the Adikia association.

Association Adikia had already reached out to other parents’ organizations, including Protecting Innocent Families in the U.S., which now shares the logo created for them all by Italian artist Chiara Zini. For more of Zini’s work, see the beautiful and touching site una Mamma, un Papá.

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

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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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Filed under AHT, shaken baby syndrome, Uncategorized

Steps Forward, Steps Backward, Part II

The second half of a posting started on March 7

Re-creation of the reported fall

In another small step forward, a father in Michigan has been found not guilty of murder or abuse in the death of his 11-week-old son, after spending 16 months in jail waiting for trial.

Mark Hontz had reported falling down the basement stairs with the boy in his arms, landing on the infant when they reached the floor. Doctors at the University of Michigan, however, rejected that explanation for the child’s injuries. At the preliminary hearing, forensic pathologist Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen pointed to anterior rib fractures and neck damage, which he said were “more consistent” with the compression and whiplash that occur during squeezing and shaking than with a fall down stairs.

Dr. Jentzen’s testimony reflected an opinion I’ve heard before about pediatric stairway falls:

“Well actually, going down stairs is not a single fall down, for example, ten feet. It is ten individual falls down a single foot, so there’s not the long distance fall that you would expect.”

In the journal Pediatrics in 1988, Drs. Mark Joffe and Stephen Ludwig at the University of Pennsylvania proposed that model in their paper “Stairway Injuries in Children,” illustrating their point with the figure to the right. That paper had concluded that “nonaccidental injury should be suspected” when children receive serious injuries in an alleged stairway fall.

The photos at the top of this page show the stairs to Mark Hontz’s basement, with the figure at the starting and landing spots he reported. A biomechanical engineer brought in by the defense pointed out that an adult falling forward down stairs does not fall one step at a time, as the feet are no longer under the center of mass. Instead, the body falls forward, propelled by the force of gravity, until the motion “is arrested by contact with the ground or steps.” The engineer calculated that the infant experienced a vertical fall of 9 feet, landing with an approximate speed of 16 miles per hour.

Investigators conducted a series of interviews with Mark Hontz, finally confronting him with the medical opinion that his son did not die from a fall down the stairs. “Hontz offered no other explanation,” the police report says, which is another way of saying that, even under intense pressure during repeated interrogations, the father never changed his story.

Illustrating the value of a thorough defense, attorney Sharon Clark Woodside also called in a forensic pathologist, a child abuse pediatrician, and a pediatric radiologist to rebut the prosecution theory.

Witnessed Shakings

Two witnessed shakings in separate hemispheres this winter seem to have produced no injuries, nor any questioning of shaking theory.

Dismayed diners at an Australian cafe called authorities about a man shouting and shaking his 5-month-old daughter, according to a news story by reporter Allison Harding. After paramedics checked the child and cleared the father to take her home, Harding wrote, other patrons attempted unsuccessfully to block his car. The father later pled guilty to unlawful assault and has sought treatment for “long-term mental health issues.” His wife reportedly stood by him in court, calling him a responsible and loving father.

cottonwoodaz

Cottonwood, Arizona

Concerned bystanders in Cottonwood, Arizona, called police and recorded video of a 19-year-old mother shaking and slapping her 10-month-old daughter at a street corner, according to coverage in the Verde Independent. Responding officers arrested the mother, a transient already known to local police and described as “combative.” Authorities later discovered that the child was missing from foster care in another state, kidnapped by her parents during a family visit. The Independent’s coverage quoted Cottonwood Police Sergeant Tod Moore, who said, “I have seen too often in shaken baby cases where permanent brain damage or death occurs. We appear to be very fortunate this time.” I note that Sgt. Moore has probably seen serious injury in cases where the doctors diagnosed shaking. In the one witnessed case he’s probably handled, doctors at the local hospital found no injuries.

More Fathers in the News

Convictions of and accusations against fathers continue to pass through the headlines.

One case in Pennsylvania has it all: no external signs of assault, the presumption of immediate symptoms, and a retreat from the term “shaken baby syndrome”—but with a computer animation shown at trial illustrating the presumed effects of a violent shaking. From an article before the verdict by reporter Laurie Mason Schroeder of The Morning Call:

Prosecution expert Dr. Debra D. Esernio-Jenssen, medical director of the Child Advocacy Center at Lehigh Valley Hospital, testified that Quinn suffered from symptoms of abusive head trauma, formerly called “shaken baby syndrome.”

Using a computerized animation, Esernio-Jenssen demonstrated how, she said, a baby’s brain would hemorrhage from being snapped back and forth in the hands of an angry adult.

On the subject of timing, Leigh Valley Live reporter Sarah Cassi wrote in an article reporting the conviction:

[Dr. Esernio-Jenssen] testified the baby would have shown immediate symptoms following the “severe, lethal episode of head trauma” she suffered, meaning the injuries occurred while [the father] was alone with the child.

Depressingly, the father’s defense attorney seems to have focused on blaming the child’s mother, arguing only that the injury had been inflicted before the girl was left in his client’s care.

A father in Tennessee has been sentenced to 15 years for aggravated child abuse, convicted after a 4-day trial, according to coverage in the Johnson City Press. The child’s mother still insists her husband is innocent—in a moving clip from the trial posted by WCYB, she said, regarding her son, “We wanted a real answer because we knew he wasn’t abused.”

The story of a young father accused in Wisconsin, meanwhile, received mixed coverage in a single treatment, with a headline about possible doubts but six opening paragraphs focused on the prosecution theory of shaken baby syndrome—the unfolding article then cites the Audrey Edmunds case and reveals that the defense attorney is fighting hard against the diagnosis.

Foster Mom Charged

And in Florida, investigators have reached the improbable conclusion that a 43-year-old mother and foster parent—active in the local child protection community—became enraged enough to batter a 17-month-old to death in the 7-minute gap between the time a social worker left her home and the time she dialed 911 for help with an unconscious toddler. Coverage in the Tampa Bay Times describes a boy with a complex medical history, including developmental delays and physical signs of early neglect. The child used a feeding tube, and he had been discharged from the hospital just a few hours before his collapse, after three days of treatment following a choking incident. Faith in the diagnosis of abusive head trauma, with a guarantee of immediate symptoms, apparently overrides the logical assessment of established medical facts.

Sam Stone

Sam Stone

This story reminds me of Quentin Stone in California, a father acquitted in 2014 by jurors in Yolo County who accepted that the child’s fatal collapse had resulted from an evolving head injury suffered in an accidental fall. Stone had taken his son to the hospital several months before his medical crisis, just to make sure he was OK, he said, after the boy had rolled off a bed. Doctors found no injuries and released him, but over the following weeks, the Stones had sought medical advice repeatedly for their son’s ongoing vomiting and apparent “breath holding.” Despite that well documented history, the prosecution charged Stone with murder after the boy’s fatal collapse, based on medical opinion that the brain findings proved abuse and the symptoms would have been immediate.

Also in Yolo County,  a public invitation this winter to the annual Rotary Club of Davis fund-raising dinner noted that a team of Rotarians had taken a trip three years ago to Kenya, East Africa, “to educate physicians, medical students and nurses on how to identify abusive head trauma in children.” The article did not say where the Rotarians got their own medical training, but it reported that the team “trained nearly 1,200 professionals throughout Kenya.” According to the shaken baby page on the web site for Rotary District 5160 (northern California), the Davis chapter also provides shaken baby simulator dolls to schools and hospitals.

Fractures in the News

Finally, a television station in Indiana ran a provocative segment on a family trying to regain custody of their two sons, removed because of fractures discovered in their first-born when he was four months old. “I understand them getting involved at that point,” says mother Ally Allen on camera, “The frustration came in that they never tried to find an answer.”

Knowing they had not abused their son, Ally says, she and the child’s father started looking for another doctor who could give them an accurate diagnosis. They found Dr. David Ayoub, a pediatric radiologist in Illinois who determined that the infant suffered from rickets, a lack of mineralization in the bones that predisposes to fractures. Once considered a disease of the past, rickets remains “a significant cause of nutritional disease for infants,” according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The family’s second child was removed from them at birth because of the pending charges. While they wait for their case to work its way through dependency court, Ally and her partner can see their sons only for a few hours at a time during scheduled visitations.

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

copyright 2017 Sue Luttner

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Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, parents accused