Tag Archives: shaken baby debate

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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Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, parents accused, Uncategorized

Shaken Baby Debate: Steps Forward, Steps Backward

jasonschneider

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.”

evaserenden

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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Shaking debate back in the courts and in the news

uphill-gunnThe landscape in the shaken baby debate is shifting again, with a series of developments that have locked in gains, slowed losses, and even claimed new ground in the struggle against unproven science in the courtroom.

In New York state last week, an appeals court affirmed the 2014 reversal of the murder conviction of care provider René Bailey, who said she was out of the room when a little girl jumped or fell from a chair. Prosecution experts had testified, however, that only shaking could explain the brain findings, and that children don’t die from short falls. In his decision reversing the conviction, Judge James Piampiano accepted the argument by Bailey’s appeal attorneys that changes in medical thinking since her 2001 trial constituted new evidence.

Last week’s ruling rejected an appeal by the state, noting that “advancements in science and/or medicine may constitute newly discovered evidence” and explicitly mentioning the evolving SBS research. Coverage in the Democrat and Chronicle led with the optimistic proclamation:

“For the first time, a New York appellate court has ruled that evidence once used to convict people in shaken-baby cases may no longer be scientifically valid.”

That same evidence failed earlier this month to convince a South Dakota jury, which found Aaron Bruns innocent of murdering his 3-month-old son Levi in what appears to be a pure shaking case. Coverage in The Daily Republic offers this summary of the father’s report:

During the trial, Bruns said he thought Levi was choking, so he quickly picked him up and tipped him upside down to clear his airway. Five minutes later, according to Bruns, Levi turned pale, and his eyes rolled to the back of his head, leading Bruns to run him to a nearby hospital.

fox9Other individual victories seem to have triggered a resurgence of press coverage highlighting the controversy. In Minnesota, for example, reporter Tom Lyden at Fox 9 pulled together a provocative treatment with the title “Critics, parents, question diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome,” featuring a local father acquitted at trial; a family whose own experts convinced the county to drop charges; and a mother now fighting the loss of her son. The treatment closes with a statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which persists in shifting the question from whether the brain findings prove abuse (No, they do not) to whether shaking is even dangerous (Yes, of course it is):

“There is no legitimate medical debate among the majority of practicing physicians as to the existence or validity of AHT/SBS…  Claims that shaking is not dangerous to infants or children are not factual and are not supported by AAP policy, despite being proffered by a few expert witnesses in the courtroom.”

presidentialsealThe assertions of the AAP notwithstanding, the real uncertainties about shaken baby theory were acknowledged this fall, briefly but officially, in a presidential report on forensic sciences in the courtroom, undertaken in the wake of the 2009 study that found “serious deficiencies” and called for “major reforms” of the nation’s forensic science system. The follow-up report, published this fall by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), notes that DNA evidence has disproved past forensic techniques like bite-mark matching and visual hair analysis, and it recommends strategies for bringing courtroom testimony in line with scientific knowledge. Footnote 15 cites an “urgent” need to examine shaken baby theory, which has not been addressed in past studies:

“PCAST notes that there are issues related to the scientific validity of other types of forensic evidence that are beyond the scope of this report but require urgent attention—including notably arson science and abusive head trauma commonly referred to as ‘Shaken Baby Syndrome.'”

For my posting on arson science, please see “Bad Science Goes Up in Smoke.”

SquierProfileNoCaptionAll these developments come in the same season as the decision to reinstate Dr. Waney Squier’s right to practice medicine, and the release of a literature review by a panel of Swedish scientists who concluded that shaken baby theory has not been proven, both of which have generated international news coverage. New Scientist, for example, published a news report about the Swedish study, with a sidebar on Dr. Squier’s case and a promo that nailed the character of the debate, calling it “toxic and polarised.”

The ripples are still spreading in the wake of Dr. Squier’s reinstatement. Even non-subscribers can give a thumbs-up to the letters to the BMJ in support of her, submitted by Michael Birnbaum, QC, and, further down the page, Dr. Jennian Geddes. I’m told our clicks will help the editors understand the scope of the problem. (If you haven’t done so yet, you can also go give a thumbs-up to the earlier letters from a group of more than 250 professionals and from pediatric radiologist David Ayoub.)

The Sunday Times last week published a more detailed treatment of Dr. Squier’s story than appeared in the early news reports—you have to register with the Times to see the article, but the process is free and reasonably painless.

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

Leo Ackley

The past few weeks have also brought a number of disappointments—in Michigan, a second trial resulted in another guilty verdict against Leo Ackley, whose first conviction had been vacated on appeal, and an appeals court affirmed the conviction of Joshua Burns, who has served his jail time and reunited with his family, although he remains on probation. Both appeals had been pressed by the Michigan Innocence Clinic, which has been focusing on shaking cases.

Leo Ackley’s family insists they will keep fighting for him, and last month the Michigan Innocence Clinic won a grant to help defend clients who may have been wrongfully convicted in shaking cases. Despite two disappointments this season, the clinic will surely keep up the pressure against a flawed theory that’s been winning in court way too long.

I hope the press, the public, and professionals in the arena stay tuned as the debate unfolds.

copyright 2016, 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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Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, shaken baby, shaken baby syndrome, Uncategorized