Last summer, Edelyn and Peter Yhip were preparing for the worst: If they were both convicted, they asked each other, who would take their children, 13-year-old Mikaela and 9-year-old Jonathan? What would happen to their home, and everything in it, if they were both in prison?
But on August 23, after 6-1/2 years of accusations, the Yhips stood in court and heard the judge drop charges against them, because the state had conceded it had insufficient evidence of murder in the 2012 death of Jonathan’s twin brother Benjamin.
“We felt so blessed when the charges were dismissed,” Edelyn said when we got together in September, at a fencing tournament where Mikaela was competing. “Now we can grieve and mourn for Benjamin, and start to heal our family.”
In a video posted by the Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP), which helped with their defense, Edelyn reflected on the reality that set in after the “jubilation” the day the charges were dropped. Although it was “great to leave this behind us,” she said, “my son is gone, and our family is not the same. Our children are still in pain—they were alone and scared when they needed us the most.”
In a television interview in the fall, Mikaela remembered how police officers came to her school one afternoon and took her and Jonathan away from the family friend who’d come to pick them up—leaving them instead in the care of foster parents they’d never met before. “They told me that Benjamin died,” Mikaela recalled. “I was so confused and scared… I really missed my parents, especially at night.” She was 7 years old.
The Yhips were eventually able to transfer the foster placement to a family the children knew, but even then they were allowed only an hour and half a week of visitation, always supervised by social services—”It was like somebody was spying on us all the time,” is how Mikaela put it. Jonathan was not allowed to attend his brother’s funeral.
Edelyn said she now has two goals: restoring her children and changing how infant death investigations are handled. “I can’t just pick up and go back to normal,” she declared, “not after what my children went through, what Peter and I went through. This nightmare should not happen to another family.”
Peter Yhip told me the ordeal destroyed his own faith in the legal system—”You never imagine something like this could happen to a perfectly innocent family,” he said—but he has learned the power of community. When he and Edelyn realized they were accused of murdering their son, he remembered, “We were numb with disbelief. But so many people rallied around us, it gave us hope. I have more faith in humanity now.”
Edelyn is a nurse and Peter is a doctor. They paid off their student loans before starting a family, Edelyn explained in the NCIP video. When they found themselves infertile, Edelyn said, they adopted the infant Mikaela from China in 2005, and then their sons in 2010, when the boys were 18 months old. “Returning from Taiwan with the boys,” she beamed, “We felt like our family was complete.”
They quickly realized, though, that Benjamin had serious medical problems, with recurring infections and a diagnosis of failure to thrive that led to an implanted feeding tube. In the spring of 2012, Edelyn found him not breathing in his bedroom and called 911.
Local press coverage quoted the NCIP about what happened next:
“At the hospital, bone scans showed unchanged abnormalities suggesting a genetic condition, and the neurosurgeon opined Ben had suffered a stroke that caused his collapse,” according to the NCIP. “Ben was put on life support and eventually declared brain dead. Arrangements were made for organ donation.”
Despite Benjamin’s long and complex medical history—including a series of hospitalizations in Taiwan, before he was adopted—the state’s pathologist declared the death a homicide, citing the presence of subdural and retinal hemorrhages, which are two elements of the “triad,” a pattern of bleeding and swelling inside the infant skull that is commonly attributed to “abusive head trauma,” previously known as “shaken baby syndrome.”
While their children remained in foster care, baffled and terrified, Edelyn Yhip was arrested at the family home, and Dr. Yhip was arrested at his clinic, handcuffed and led out the front door past patients in the waiting room.
The Yhips’ friends and family rallied behind them, setting up a web site and raising money to mount a defense. More than one family put their homes on the line, adding their properties to the bond, so Edelyn and Peter could be out of prison while waiting for trial. The family was reunited about a year after the accusations, when the dependency court found “substantial evidence” that Benjamin had died of medical complications, not criminal assault. Still, the county continued to press its criminal case for five more years, while the NCIP submitted a growing body of medical reports supporting the family’s innocence, as well as court decisions from other disputed shaking cases and the 2018 book, The Forensic Unreliability of the Shaken Baby Syndrome.
“We had a host of heroes in this case,” wrote NCIP attorney Paige Kaneb, who stuck with the case through all those years, in an email announcing the decision to drop the charges. “Great day, long overdue. The best part was after court when the Yhips told their 13-year-old daughter that this is finally over.”
The nightmare is over, but the Yhips are not leaving their experience behind. Both Edelyn and Peter say they hope their case might help move the debate about shaking theory forward, and help other families avoid a nightmare like theirs. “The triad has got to go,” Edelyn insists. “It’s not just the financial toll, it’s the emotional toll it takes on your whole family.”
This week, the Yhips are heading to Atlanta for the annual Innocence Network conference, April 12–13, where they are hoping to connect with other accused and exonerated families. You can contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
copyright 2019, Sue Luttner
If you are not familiar with the debate surrounding shaken baby syndrome, please see the home page of this blog.