Tag Archives: Gail Dobson

Shaken Baby Debate: Steps Forward, Steps Backward

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Jason & his son

Part I of II

Amid a winter of murky news coverage and disappointing developments, an encouraging story comes out of Colorado, where the state dropped charges in January against father Jason Schneider after a mistrial due to a hung jury in December. Schneider, an EMT and former volunteer firefighter, has enjoyed the support of his family and community since the accusations last winter.

“There’s been so much rebuilding, and lots of celebration,” Jason reported, although his family is still reeling from a year of lurid press coverage, hardly balanced out by a couple of brief articles after the fact. “My wife and I know we are blessed,” he said, “but we are disillusioned with the justice system and the media,” and they worry about other accused families with fewer resources.

Jason had called 911 after his son seemed to choke on a bottle and quit breathing and Jason’s own efforts failed to revive him.

The state’s motion to drop the case—which was based on the triad with no other findings—referenced three letters written to the prosecutor after the trial from jurors, two urging the state to drop the charges. The jury had deadlocked 10-2, with the majority advocating for acquittal. In light of the juror input, the motion declared:

“…undersigned counsel simply does not believe there is a realistic likelihood of a jury composed of 12 different members of the community reaching a unanimous decision finding the defendant guilty.”

The Schneider family

The Schneider family

The judge placed one of the letters in the case file, from a panelist who wrote that many jurors thought the trial was a “poor prosecutorial decision” and the case should be dismissed. He attributed the hung jury to two jurors who approached deliberations “with a presumption of guilt instead of a presumption of innocence.”

The letter-writer, who said he had no preconceptions going into the trial, criticized some of the prosecution’s tactics, including the marginalizing of defense witnesses. He observed that the defense experts had years of experience and knew the research in their specialties, in contrast to the local experts called by the state:

“The inexperienced doctors at Children’s Hospital… believe the triad is gospel as far as Shaken Baby Syndrome/NAI [non-accidental trauma] is concerned. That is what they were taught… The specialists that the defense brought in are far from the only ones that share an alternate view. It was disgusting to hear you refer to them as ‘fringe.'”

Defense attorney Kathryn Stimson had brought in a pediatric ophthalmologist who specializes in retinas, a pediatric neurologist, a neuropathologist, a radiologist, and a biomechanical engineer. She said her team was devastated that the jury didn’t acquit after such a strong defense. “These cases are incredibly difficult,” she reflected. “Even with amazing expert and character witnesses, they are still so very hard.”

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Eva Amurri Marino

Indeed, these cases are hard, even without devastating accusations of abuse, a point made by actress and blogger Eva Amurri Martino, daughter of Susan Sarandon and mother of two. Eva revealed in a January posting on her blog Happily Eva After that two months earlier, when her son Major was only a month old, the night nurse had fallen asleep while holding the baby, who had slipped off her lap and onto the hardwood floor.

At the hospital, doctors found a depressed skull fracture and “localized” brain bleeding. Eva and her husband hovered over their precious baby for “two harrowing days” of treatment and tests. “To say these were the most traumatic and anxious two days of my life is an understatement,” she wrote. But their son was then released with a glowing prognosis, and, indeed, he seems to be fine.

She didn’t write about the incident when it happened, Eva explained, because she wanted to wait until they knew Major was OK, and also:

“The second reason I chose not to share was fear of judgement… I know that this news might reach many, and of those many there will always be the people who say that this accident was my fault. That if it had been me in there holding him instead of a Night Nurse, that this never would have happened. That I deserve this for allowing my child to be in the care of somebody other than me. Well, let me tell you–the guilt I bore in the days and weeks after this accident was more intense and more damaging than anything I would wish upon my worst enemy. I had all those same thoughts and more. I wept in the hospital, telling anyone who would listen that it should have been me. That I was to blame. The truth is, even this woman who came so highly recommended, with a perfectly clean track record, could make a very human mistake. It “could happen to anyone”, and as they told me repeatedly in the hospital, it DOES happen to anyone. More often than you’d like to hear. Obviously, the (extremely upset and remorseful) nurse is no longer working for our family, though we forgive her. And even though I finally made peace with the fact that this freak accident could not have been avoided by me, it has continued to effect me to my core and in all aspects of my daily life.”

happilyevafamily

Major with his family

What dazzles me about this case is that the doctors seem to have accepted that a fall from a caretaker’s lap can produce a depressed skull fracture and, I’m extrapolating, subdural hematoma. In 2006 in San Mateo County, I watched a nanny convicted of child abuse based on those symptoms, also with no underlying brain damage. I have to wonder what made the difference—nothing in the posting implies there was ever any question of abuse.

Disappointment at Retrial

A jury in Maryland, meanwhile, has found child care provider Gail Dobson guilty in a second trial, nearly three years after her first conviction was reversed on a finding of ineffective assistance of counsel. Her attorney in 2010 had failed to call any medical experts to dispute the state’s theory, a strategy a 2014 appeals court labelled “deficient” after hearing testimony from two critics of shaking theory. News coverage of the second trial implies that the judge excluded defense expert testimony based on pretrial hearings, so jurors seem to have heard again from only one side in the debate.

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

Leo and Baylee

The Dobson conviction echoes the outcome this past fall in Michigan, where Leo Ackley was also found guilty at a second trial, after his first conviction was vacated on appeal in 2013. Both the appeal court and the second jury heard from defense experts brought in by the Michigan Innocence Clinic. Leo’s family insists he is innocent and says they are pushing for another appeal. I reached out to Leo, who wrote a long reply, including these thoughts:

“It’s really the hardest time of my life… I don’t know where to begin after being convicted for a second time, and knowing how long and hard it was to make it back the first time. Just preparing for another long appeal process and praying for a miracle.”

I am still hoping for a better outcome in the upcoming retrial of care provider René Bailey, whose conviction in a toddler’s death was vacated in 2014.  Jury selection begins September 5.

I have another thousand words queued up about this winter’s developments, but I think this first half is plenty for one blog posting. More soon.    -Sue

For Part II of this posting:  https://onsbs.com/2017/03/10/steps-forward-steps-backward-part-ii/

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

copyright 2017 Sue Luttner

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Appeals All Over the Map, as Usual

While the appeals on behalf of care providers Jennifer Del Prete and René Bailey work their ways through the courts, a number of other painful cases have been passing milestones without news coverage.

Hopes Dimmed in the West

Robert and Gabriel Wilkes, 2008

Gabe and Dave Wilkes, 2008, courtesy the Wilkes family. “He was a proud father” -Tony Wilkes

In the “exasperating” category is an April 2 decision in Montana, where a district judge has rejected an Innocence Project petition to reopen the case of  single father Robert James “Dave” Wilkes, convicted in 2009. As described in past news coverage of the case, Wilkes had spent the day moving into a new apartment, and then stopped by the unit of a friend and neighbor who had been caring for 3-month-old Gabriel. He stayed and chatted while feeding the boy a bottle. Wilkes says that a few minutes after the two returned to their own apartment, Gabriel made a “gurgling” noise and quit breathing. At the hospital, though, doctors said the presence of the triad proved the child had been shaken.

The appeal argued that Wilkes had ineffective assistance of counsel, because his trial attorney had called  only one witness, Wilkes himself, who told the jury his version of what happened that evening. But the jury also heard from nine prosecution experts, who agreed that little Gabriel couldn’t have drunk a bottle after the presumed assault. Remarkably, the district court overlooked this imbalance, noting that the attorney had tried to find a defense expert, and in fact had contacted forensic pathologist Dr. Thomas Bennett, a “recognized expert in child abuse”—who had agreed with the state’s doctors.

EdgesOfTruthOne fundamental problem here is that if the defense attorney had done his research, he never would have contacted Dr. Bennett with a shaking case: Dr. Bennett’s over-diagnosis of shaking injuries triggered one of the first high-profile articles questioning shaken baby syndrome in the courtroom, the 1998 piece by Mark Hanson in the ABA Journal, “Why Are Iowa’s Babies Dying?” As also reported in the Los Angeles Times, Dr. Bennett ultimately resigned his post as state medical examiner after a series of unsupportable shaking diagnoses. The eventual exoneration of babysitter Mary Weaver was part of his unraveling.

Still, Judge Ed McLean of the Montana Fourth Judicial District agreed in his written opinion (Wilkes 2014-04-02) with a lower court that the trial strategy had been reasonable and that “any assertion that the mere presence of an expert for the defense would have made a difference… is mere speculation.” Judge McLean’s decision also dismissed new opinions offered in the petition from an array of medical experts for the defense, although attorney Brendan McQuillan from the Montana Innocence Project insists his team “found and presented new evidence never discovered before or after trial that the child had neonatal-hemochromitosis, a rare liver disorder which is most often fatal.”

Clearer Thinking in Maryland

Illustrating the unpredictable nature of these appeals, a Maryland circuit court reached the opposite decision just a few days later in a similar case, overturning the 2010 conviction of Gail Pinder Dobson, a child care provider with both a long history and a sterling reputation in her community before she was accused of shaking a 9-month-old baby to death. Dobson had in fact taken care of the infant’s mother when she was a baby decades earlier.

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Gail Dobson, 2009

Like Wilkes in Montana, Dobson reported that a few minutes after she fed the boy a bottle, he made a “gurgling” sound and stopped breathing. She attempted first aid and dialed 911, but the boy died later that day. Soon after Dobson’s indictment in November of 2009, her attorney contacted a single expert witness, who supplied his report at the end of July for an August trial:  He agreed with the state’s physicians that the infant had suffered an inflicted injury just before the 911 call. Although Dobson’s trial featured a number of character witnesses, her attorney did not call any medical experts, with the explanation that “Petitioner denied any type of abuse and her credibility should have been sufficient.”

In Dobson’s case, though, the court concluded that the attorney “did not use reasonable diligence” by not getting the doctor’s opinion in time to find an alternative expert. The state argued that Dobson’s attorney was employing a legitimate trial tactic, but the judge wrote, “[The attorney’s] assertion that he did not need expert testimony is both illogical and untenable. Such testimony would have both corroborated Petitioner’s version of the facts and refuted the testimony of the State’s experts.” You can read the decision, by Kent County Circuit Court Judge Paul M. Bowman, at Dobson -Kent County, 2014-04-07.

A Long, Lonely Road in Tennessee

russellMaze

Russell and Alex Maze, 1999

I was especially sad to hear that the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has denied the habeas petition of convicted father Russell Maze, now serving a life sentence for the death of his son Alex, only five weeks old and still days short of his due date the afternoon in 1999 that Russell claims he found the boy gasping for breath in his crib. Alex had been born in respiratory distress, with the umbilical cord wrapped tightly around his neck, and he spent his first two weeks of life in the intensive care nursery. A few days before his collapse, his parents had taken him to the after-hours clinic, where they were told they were being over-anxious first-time parents.

Maze’s case history is complex. His prosecutor at two trials was Brian Holmgren, an advisory board member of the National Center on Shaken Baby Sydnrome and the co-author of a passionate essay last year in the Utah Law Review decrying the minority opinion in the Shirley Ree Smith case.

Dropped Before Trial

Finally, in Washington state, a welcome outcome that short-circuits the need for an appeal later: Charges have been dropped against a young father after a prosecution motion that said staffing shortages had precluded their dealing with the case in a timely manner. Charges were dropped without prejudice, so the state could refile, but defense attorney Chuck Henry said he doubts they will revisit, as both the evidence and the handling of the case were inadequate. “This case was truly more about prosecutorial case mismanagement than it was about SBS, which never existed in the first place,” he summarized.

copyright 2014 Sue Luttner

If you are not familiar with the debate surrounding Shaken Baby Syndrome, please see the home page of this web site.

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