Tag Archives: Deborah Tuerkheimer

Flawed Convictions: Breaking Academic Ground

Flawed ConvictionsThe next phase of the shaken baby debate is coming right up:  Next month professor Deborah Tuerkheimer at the DePaul University College of Law is publishing a book through Oxford University Press, USA, that will reject decades of courtroom outcomes in these cases. Flawed Convictions: “Shaken Baby Syndrome” and the Inertia of Injustice promises not only to explain how a flawed theory has become entrenched in the courtroom but also to propose a way out of the morass we are in now.

Prof. Tuerkheimer, once a New York child abuse prosecutor, was already aware of the triad and its role in the courtroom in 2008 when she heard about the successful appeal of the Audrey Edmunds conviction. She studied both the legal arguments and the medical references, and concluded that the Edmunds court was correct: Medical consensus regarding shaken baby syndrome had dissipated since the 1997 trial. As Tuerkheimer explains in the book’s introduction, now available on line:

“The criminal justice implications were staggering. The mainstream medical rethinking recognized by the court could not undermine this one conviction without undermining the convictions of others whose cases also depended on the triad.”

Her first expectation, she writes, was that the Edmunds decision would trigger “a massive institutional effort to correct error.” What she encountered, however, was a system not only poorly equipped to vet medical testimony but also averse to changing course:

“Throughout the process—from prosecutorial decisions, to evidentiary rulings, to judicial review—we see a drive to push forward rather than revisit. A diagnosis of SBS sets in motion systemic confirmation, first in the clinical realm, and then the legal. The course of injustice is almost immovable.”

Prof. Deborah Tuerkheimer

Prof. Deborah Tuerkheimer

Still, Tuerkheimer insists that the course can be changed, and the last chapter of the book will offer her prescription for achieving that goal. I’m hoping she suggests a systematic review of past shaking convictions, as an alternative to the current practice of appealing them one by one.

My favorite line in the promotional blurbs is in the Amazon description, which explains that doctors are no longer sure that the triad can be caused only by abuse, or that the last adult with the child is necessarily guilty, but notes that the legal system has failed to adapt to the change:

As a result, innocent parents and caregivers remain incarcerated and, perhaps more perplexingly, triad-only prosecutions continue even to this day.

You can read a quick summary of Tuerkheimer’s conclusions in her 2010 New York Times op ed piece. She has published two law journal articles on the subject, one explaining her position and calling for change, and a second a few years later, expressing her impatience with the lack of progress.

Her observation on the current situation:

Today, an acceptance of triad-based prosecutions that once was complete has dissolved—alas, to be supplanted by a distibution of justice that is halting and unequal, with disadvantage breaking along familiar lines.

Surely its distinguished author and pedigreed publisher will give Flawed Convictions credibility. I look forward to reading Tuerkheimer’s prescription for change, and I hope her book reaches readers on both sides of the debate.

If you click on the image of the book on the Amazon page, you can read quite a bit of the book itself.

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

copyright 2014, Sue Luttner


Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, SBS, shaken baby syndrome, Uncategorized

Well Said: Law Reviews Address SBS

Keith Findley, co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, at an SBS meeting in February 2012

With manuscripts from seasoned veterans, young idealists, and players in between, law journals are starting to cover the legal tangle surrounding shaken baby syndrome.

Law professor Keith Findley at the University of Wisconsin Law School, co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, has collaborated with an all-star team to produce a thorough, careful, and readable response to an article that appeared in the April issue of the Houston Journal of Health Law and Policy, from the University of Houston Law Center.

In the original paper (“A Daubert Analysis of Abusive Head Trauma/Shaken Baby Syndrome,” Volume 11, issue 3), attorney and child-abuse pediatrician Dr. Sandeep Narang rejected the mounting criticism of classic SBS theory and argued that, in the absence of a clear alternative diagnosis, the courts should rely on child-abuse experts to tell them whether the presence of the triad represents abuse.

Findley’s response—written with pediatric radiologist Dr. Patrick Barnes, pediatric neuropathologist Dr. Waney Squier, and law professor David Moran from the Michigan Innocence Clinic—is a must-read for anyone facing or defending an SBS accusation. You can download the unpublished draft of “Shaken Baby Syndrome, Abusive Head Trauma, and Actual Innocence: Getting It Right” at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2048374.

Winter 2013 update:  Dr. Narang’s paper is now available at http://www.law.uh.edu/hjhlp/volumes/Vol_11_3/Narang.pdf, and the response from Findley et al. is now available in situ at http://www.law.uh.edu/hjhlp/volumes/Vol_12_2/Findley.pdf

Past Convictions

The University of Wisconsin Journal of Law Reform, meanwhile, has published a careful analysis that calls for a review of all past convictions in shaking cases. Senior law student Rachel Burg opens her article with the story of Julie Baumer, who was featured in Emily Bazelon’s New York Times Piece in 2010. Baumer served four years in prison before a pro bono attorney brought in new experts, who unanimously and independently diagnosed venous sinus thrombosis. Burg writes, accurately, I’d say:

The truly heartbreaking stories, however, are those that are not told—the innocent people currently in prison, convicted of seriously injuring a child that they loved, based on a medical diagnosis that has become scientifically questionable.

You can download a .pdf of Burg’s article from the journal’s web site, http://www.mjlr.org/2012/05/volume-45-issue-3-spring-2012/

SBS as Established Mistake

In 2011 the Brigham Young University Law Review published a reasoned article calling for bone-density testing before fractures are considered pathognomonic for abuse. Author Matthew B. Seeley, a recent law school graduate, cited shaken baby syndrome as an example of past judicial mistakes. He reviewed the history of the syndrome, including recent rethinking about both the specificity and the timing of the symptoms, and wrote:

There are many lessons to be learned from the history of shaken-baby syndrome, not all of them within the scope of this Comment. One lesson, though, is clear: a misappraisal of whether a certain injury or combination of injuries is pathognomonic can lead to the conviction and imprisonment of innocent caretakers.

Although I’d expect that article to be heading to the archives soon, it is currently available through the Current Issue tab on the journal’s web site, at http://lawreview.byu.edu/issue.php

Shaking as First-Degree Murder

Practicing attorney Derick Vollrath in North Carolina has published an intriguing analysis in the Campbell Law Review, arguing that the prevalence of anti-shaking campaigns is inconsistent with his state’s policy of prosecuting shaking deaths as first-degree murder. Vollrath writes:

These campaigns share a common assumption: a significant number of Shaken Baby Syndrome deaths are not the intended result of a caregiver’s premeditated design.

Caregivers just lose it. They snap. They don’t know any better.  At the same time, North Carolina’s criminal law allows the state’s district attorneys to prosecute these caregivers for first-degree murder,  the most serious criminal charge available.

Although I regret that Mr. Vollrath seems to accept the specificity of the triad, I do appreciate his careful analysis and thoughtful position.  The article is in the current issue of the Campbell Law Review, available at  http://law.campbell.edu/lawreview/

Professor Deborah Tuerkheimer, De Paul University College of Law

The Classic

My files contain a handful of older papers, but the first highly publicized law journal article critical of infant shaking convictions was Professor Deborah Tuerkheimer’s 2009 critique in the Washington University Law Review.

She has since published a follow-up article in the Alabama Law Review addressing the lag in courtroom policy despite the evolving science.

Both Professor Tuerkheimer and Audrey Edmunds—the Wisconsin babysitter whose vacated conviction in 2007 marked the beginning of the Innocence Network’s success with shaking cases—will have books on the shelves soon.  The tide is turning.

©2012, Sue Luttner


Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, keith findley, narang, SBS, shaken baby syndrome