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.
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
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