Tag Archives: shaken baby

Good News, Bad News: the Tragedies Continue

Attorneys Khari Tillery & Paige Kenab, exonerated father Zavion Johnson  -photo courtesy Northern California Innocence Project

After maintaining his innocence for 17 years, a California father was freed this winter when Sacramento Superior Court Judge James Arguelles overturned his murder conviction, citing evolving medical thinking about infant head trauma.

Zavion Johnson said in 2001 that he had accidentally dropped his 4-month-old daughter Nadia in the bathtub, but he was convicted by medical testimony that the girl had been shaken to death. Then, in the years since his trial, two of the prosecution experts changed their positions. Prompted by Khari Tillery, a private attorney working pro bono, and Paige Kenab of the Northern California Innocence Project, both doctors provided affidavits saying they now believe a household fall could explain the child’s injuries.

The prosecution’s own filing in the case recognized that the original medical testimony, now recanted, had been key to Johnson’s conviction. In an excellent treatment of the exoneration, Sacramento Bee reporter Darrell Smith quoted a juror who said the panel had relied entirely on the medical evidence:

“All of the doctors said these injuries to Nadia could only have been caused by severe shaking of the baby… One doctor after another, they presented this united front that the medical evidence speaks… We agreed that it didn’t seem to fit him [Johnson]. He really loved his baby and took care of her. We felt he did do it, but that it was badly out of character.”

Zavion Johnson & Paige Kenab

Zavion Johnson was accused at the age of 18, released at 34. Because the jury believed the doctors over Johnson—and over 13 character witnesses, including the child’s mother—he has spent almost half his life, all of his adult life, behind bars. In an email after his release, celebrating the many people who had donated their time and expertise to the appeal, Kenab wrote, “Zavion took his first hot shower since he was 18 years old last night, laid down in a real bed with a real pillow, and from the moment he walked out, told us over and over again how different the air smelled. Thank you.”

The case was closed in January of 2018, when the state dismissed all charges, according to J0hnson’s entry in the National Registry of Exonerations.

Tiffani Calise reported a bathub fall

I’m eager to see this new thinking at work on behalf of other innocent parents and caretakers convicted by flawed testimony about short falls—like the six people I wrote about in my 2014 post Short Falls, Long Sentences, who all remain in prison.

I see progress, but it’s slow and halting. Child care provider René Bailey in New York was released from prison in 2014, when Judge James J. Piampiano vacated her murder conviction, citing what he called “a compelling and consequential shift in mainstream medical opinion” about pediatric short falls. Unlike Johnson’s prosecutor, however, Bailey’s refiled the charges.

Prof. Adele Bernhard

On the eve of a scheduled retrial last summer, Bailey agreed to a plea deal that avoided the risk of a second conviction and more jail time. Under what’s known as an “Alford plea,” Bailey stated in open court that she was pleading guilty to assault because she believed the state would be able to prove its case against her at trial. “She was not forced to say she did something she didn’t do,” pointed out her attorney, Prof. Adele Bernhard, director of the New York Law School Post-Conviction Innocence Clinic. “This is a compromise and not a very happy one,” Bernhard conceded, “but one that allows René to move on with her life and start to move forward.”

The court accepted Bailey’s plea and set a sentence of 12 and a half years, less than the 13 years she had already served, so she remains free but on probation.

In New Jersey, meanwhile, a panel of appeal judges has upheld the conviction of Michelle Heale, a mother and babysitter who said the toddler in her care had choked on a packet of applesauce. Her conviction was based on the triad, with no signs of impact.

In Kentucky, a young man has been sentenced to eight years in prison after accepting a plea deal—the newspaper report says he was accused of shaking but doesn’t specify the charges. He had reported an accidental fall.

Sarah Martin in happier times

And I’ve recently come across a 2016 murder conviction in Oregon, where mother and babysitter Sarah Martin is serving a life sentence for the death of a 7-month-old who quit breathing in her care. She said she thought the boy had choked on a whole grain snack.

On the bright side, a judge in North Carolina dropped murder charges against a Marine veteran who had been in jail for more than five months, after a local pathologist contacted the district attorney to say the man’s daughter had died of a rare heart condition. The video (click on the arrow in the opening image on the WFMY page) continues beyond the end of the text version, after this provocative statement from defense attorney Taylor Brown:

“It is extremely frightening to know that this could happen to anybody. And in fact if you spend 10 minutes on the Internet, you will find out that it is happening all over the country,” he said.

Reporter Erica Harper says she took that advice and found a number of disputed cases on line—the graphics show browser listings for a few of the classic critiques of shaking theory, like the NPR interview with Dr. Norman Guthkelch; the 2016 Washington Post exposé; and the Time magazine treatment of the Annie Li case in New York.

But none of these treatments seems to have had a noticable impact, any more than Lee Scheier’s 2005 treatment in the Chicago Tribune, Emily Bazelon’s 2011 treatment in the New York Times, or the 2011 collaboration among ProPublica, PBS “Frontline,” and NPR—all of which I’d hoped would help wake up the world to the ongoing injustice.

Because short falls are a theme of this posting, I end it with a video demonstration prepared by emeritus physics professor Richard Reimann, who used  an SBS demonstration doll to illustrate one difference between shaking without impact and a short fall. See also his analyses of various fall scenarios, with excellent illustrations.

copyright 2018, Sue Luttner

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

 

 

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under parents accused, SBS, shaken baby, shaken baby syndrome, Uncategorized

Dr. John Plunkett, Champion of Justice, 1947–2018

Dr. John Plunkett

Dr. John Plunkett, the forensic pathologist who galvanized a network of physicians and attorneys fighting for justice in shaken baby cases, died peacefully early this month in Minnesota, surrounded by family and friends, two weeks short of his 71st birthday.

“John Plunkett was an American hero. He should be remembered as an iconic figure to anyone who cares deeply about injustice,” said attorney Randy Papetti, who worked with Dr. Plunkett on the landmark Drayton Witt exoneration—only one of 50 successful appeals Dr. Plunkett had a hand in over the years, according to the official obituary.

Dr. Waney Squier

“John was a great inspiration to me and to a whole generation of doctors and lawyers,” emailed Dr. Waney Squier, a British pediatric neuropathologist who received the Innocence Network (IN) Champion of Justice Award in 2016, the same year Dr. Plunkett received the IN Lifetime Achievement Award. “He showed us how to think critically,” she continued. “He showed us courage, compassion, and humility. He taught me to wear cowboy boots and chew tobacco.”

Dr. Jan Leestma

Dr. Plunkett’s influence ran deep. Dr. Jan Leestma, author of the classic text Forensic Neuropathology, recalled that meeting John Plunkett in the 1980s—from opposite sides of the courtroom—helped convince him to look more closely at shaking theory. Leestma reviewed “virtually all the literature at the time,” he said, and changed his position. He then became an early and influential voice calling for more scientific rigor in both the research and the testimony regarding shaken baby syndrome. Dr. Leestma’s testimony on behalf of British au pair Louise Woodward in 1997 helped expose the nation to the emerging debate.

With his wife Donna at the premiere of The Syndrome

Comments about Dr. Plunkett in private and public forums—such as the Facebook page for the documentary “The Syndrome,” which captured Dr. Plunkett’s passion and sincerity on screen—offer praise and thanks from attorneys he educated, families he helped, and physicians he inspired. The word “hero” shows up a lot.

“John mentored me through a rapid learning curve,” wrote assistant federal defender Doug Olson, who described Dr. Plunkett as “brilliant… He was patient with his explanations and kept me on track… He was a maverick who understood science and stood up for what he believed in, but he also had a big heart and cared about people.”

“John was a thorough, detail-oriented expert witness [in multiple cases],” public defender Alicia Cata in Arizona posted on a list serve, “often not collecting a dime for all his work.”

Katherine Judson, an IN attorney, added a personal note, “And so kind, so generous, and fun, and funny.” Law professor Keith Findley, who worked with Dr.Plunkett on the groundbreaking Audrey Edmunds appeal, echoed that sentiment, describing Dr. Plunkett as “a deeply thoughtful and caring, but also fun-loving and quite funny man.”

Dr. Pat Lantz

Pathologist Dr. Patrick Lantz, taking the Latin approach popular with physicians, wrote, “Primus inter pares,” which translates as “first among equals,” a phrase commonly applied to the unofficial leader in a group with no formal hierarchy.

The families he defended described Dr. Plunkett as “warm,” “caring,” and “dedicated.” One couple whose family was shattered by a shaking diagnosis wrote in the mortuary guest book, “He was a wonderful resource but also a wonderful friend… Fly high, Doctor, you will be missed.”

A Pioneer in the Field

Dr. Plunkett encountered his first shaken baby diagnosis in 1986, in a death he concluded could have been accidental—the mother reported that her daughter had fallen from the arm of a couch while reaching for a shelf above. But the child abuse experts testified that children do not die from household falls and they believed the little girl had been shaken to death. Unconvinced, Dr. Plunkett started reading the published research about infant shaking and found, he once told  me, “the least scientific literature I had ever seen.”

He lost that first case, but had become one of the few forensic pathologists in the nation to have studied the literature and recognized the problems with shaking theory. He found himself called into other cases, increasingly disturbed by the power of misinformed medical testimony in the courtroom.

“I was a practicing physician,” Dr. Plunkett told me last year, “I didn’t write articles. But I had to start. People need to know that families are being destroyed because doctors don’t understand injury mechanisms.”

After the Woodward conviction, child abuse experts published a letter to the journal Pediatrics complaining about both press coverage that treated the defense theory as credible and the experts who offered it. “Let those who would challenge the specificity of these diagnostic features first do so in the peer-reviewed literature, before speculating on other causes in court,” the doctors wrote. Characteristically, Dr. Plunkett rose to the challenge, with his first published article on the topic, “Shaken Baby Syndrome and the Death of Matthew Eappen: A Forensic Pathologist’s Response,” in which he questioned everything about the syndrome from the specificity of the findings to the timing of the injuries. He followed that paper in 1999 with a case study presenting a child whose death was caused by a brain aneurism.

Attorney Mark Freeman

“I admire John for having the courage to stand up and say the emperor has no clothes,” wrote attorney Mark Freeman in an email last week. Freeman described Dr. Plunkett as “gracious—and incredibly helpful” when he met him in 2009, while helping a friend who was accused of shaking his baby. Although Freeman’s specialty is not criminal law, he has stayed in the network to help orient other attorneys handling their first SBS cases or pursuing civil suits.

Dr. Plunkett’s willingness to speak out earned him both personal and professional criticism, including criminal charges of “false swearing” in 2005, after his testimony helped win an innocent verdict in Oregon. A judge eventually acquitted Dr. Plunkett, who was slowed down briefly but not stopped by the harassment.

Researcher, Catalyst

In 2001, Dr. Plunkett challenged the common knowledge that children don’t die in short falls by publishing a collection of 18 fatal pediatric fall reports, of distances from 2 to 10 feet, which he pulled from the records of the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission.

With Dr. John Galaznik at a 2012 conference

Shortly after that, he organized the Evidence Based Medicine Symposium (EBMS), an on-line forum that allowed physicians from different specialties to communicate with each other about shaken baby theory. “John’s web contributions cannot be emphasized enough,” posted Dr. Leestma. “This list serve brought people together… Godspeed, my friend.”

“His work made progress possible,” emailed intensivist Steven Gabaeff, who has published his own papers on SBS (here and here). “He was generous, good natured, brilliant, warm, hard working… and he did so much to raise awareness of our shared concerns. He was the catalyst for getting the attorneys involved.”

In 2005, Dr. Plunkett published an editorial in the BMJ, co-authored with British neuropathologist Dr. Gennian Geddes, with the self-explanatory title, “The evidence base for shaken baby syndrome: We need to re-evaluate the diagnostic criteria.” (The same issue contained a paper by Dr. Lantz about retinal folds.)

Dr. Plunkett also coauthored papers with automotive-research pioneer Dr. Werner Goldsmith and biomechanics expert Chris Van Ee. He organized two conferences of the EBMS, and he recruited presenters for the 2013 World Congress on Infant Head Trauma, a forum organized by the publishing arm of the National Association of Medical Examiners to foster direct debate between proponents and skeptics of shaken baby theory.

At an Innocence Network meeting

Forensic pathologist Dr. Carl Wigren attended the 2013 World Congress because he’d been hearing rumblings that the common knowledge about shaken baby might be wrong—and what he heard there convinced him that Dr. Plunkett and his team were right. He wrote that Dr. Plunkett “is the epitome of the person I strive to be. Understanding medicine is one responsibility of a physician, but applying and transmitting that knowledge to assist those in need is the gift that John possessed in spades.”

Julia Jonas at the Innocence Project of Minnesota remembered that when she was a young lawyer, Dr. Plunkett was the only medical examiner in the county willing to take cases for the defense. “He never made me feel ignorant and often made me feel empowered,” she wrote, and she credited him with changing attitudes: “He has trained several of our local medical examiners to be the truly independent experts that they should be, and not simply another voice for the prosecution. He will be greatly missed, but his legacy will live on.”

At a panel discussion at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law

In a blog post marking Dr. Plunkett’s death and praising his work, Radley Balko at The Washington Post wrote, “Plunkett deserves credit for being among the first to sound the alarm about wrongful SBS convictions.”

Dr. Plunkett spent 39 years as a forensic pathologist, the official obituary reports. He directed the pathology lab at Regina Medical Center in Hastings, Minnesota, for 26 years and served as the coroner for Dakota County. The obituary does not mention that in his youth he played acoustic guitar in coffee houses, with a band called The Four.

He is survived by his wife of over 47 years Donna McFarren Plunkett, the love of his life, and sons Matt (Jen), and Ben; two grandchildren Fiona and Cailin; siblings Patrick (Anita), Marnie Olson (John), Tim (Lucy), Paul (Susan), Michael (Dawn), Ann, and Peggy; brothers-in-law Neil (Diane), and Russ (Tish); and many nieces and nephews.

A Personal Note

I had my first phone call with Dr. Plunkett in 2000, when he was about to publish his short fall paper. I had been researching shaken baby for two years at that point, after the niece of a friend was convicted of shaking a baby in her care. I’d been comparing the medical testimony in the trial transcripts with the scientific facts available in the medical journals, and puzzling over the gap. Could I, not a medical professional, but a technical writer and careful reader, possibly have identified fundamental problems with the evidence base for a well-accepted but unproven theory that was almost unbeatable in court?

Dr. Plunkett assured me that I had done just that. “You start to look at this with even the rudimentary elements of scientific thinking,” he confirmed, “And you say, ‘What is going on here?'”

He then gave me my first lesson in the physics of short falls, and I was hooked.

He became the medical advisor to my book, and for 15 years, my book proposal has promised he would write the introduction, an introduction neither one of us ever crafted. I guess I will be dedicating the book to him instead.

Copyright 2018, Sue Luttner

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

4 Comments

Filed under SBS, shaken baby

From the heart, from the brain: A top-notch TEDx talk on shaken baby

Pediatric neuropathologist Dr. Waney Squier has hit one out of the park in her TEDx talk, “I believed in Shaken Baby Syndrome until science showed I was wrong,” published Friday on Progress Video TV.

While telling her own story with calm, compelling intensity, she also describes the pain inflicted on innocent families by misguided accusations of abuse and documents the refusal of the legal and medical communities to accept the unwelcome truth about their flawed theory.

“By ignoring the science and adopting an unproven hypothesis, doctors have done great harm,” she concludes, “and have led the courts astray.”

The talk opens with the story of Linda, a mother convicted of shaking her third child to death based on the presence of the triad: bleeding in the retinas, bleeding beneath the lining of the brain, and brain swelling. “At her trial, Linda was described as a woman of good character, a caring and careful mother,” Dr. Squier recounts, “But doctors—medical experts—said that those three findings meant that [the boy] must have been violently shaken” when alone with his mother.

Three years later, Linda’s conviction was overturned on appeal. “Her name was cleared, but her life was ruined,” Squier says. Her parents had died and her husband had left her. Her fourth child, a little girl born in prison, had been taken from her at birth and placed for adoption, and even after her exoneration, Linda was prohibited from attempting contact.

When Linda was first accused, the police had called in Dr. Squier, an expert on infant brain pathology. After examining the brain, she had endorsed the opinion of the other doctors, that it was a case of shaken baby syndrome. “They believed in it, and I believed in it,” she grimaces, “and so my report was part of the evidence that cost Linda so much.”

Dr. Squier says her own doubts about shaking theory started when another neuropathologist, Dr. Jennian Geddes, published research suggesting that the damage in presumed shaking cases resulted from lack of oxygen, not from direct violence. Dr. Squier recalls:

“Back in 2001, the Geddes research stopped me in my tracks. It wasn’t what I had expected. So I read everything I could about shaken baby syndrome, and as a scientist, I’m embarrassed to admit to you I hadn’t done so before. I’d been making this diagnosis on the basis of my uncritical acceptance of what was in the textbooks and what I’d been taught. I was startled to learn that there was no scientific foundation for the hypothesis.”

No one has ever witnessed a shaking assault that resulted in the triad, she reports. Laboratory research and biomechanical calculations have only cast doubt on the theory, and past experience with front-facing car seats tells us that whiplash forces cause fractures and dislocations in the neck, not intracranial bleeding and swelling.

After her realization that the theory was not only unproven but likely wrong, Dr. Squier started conducting her own research, and she started testifying for the defense. But her willingness to speak out against the common knowledge resulted in criticism from colleagues, scoldings from judges, and complaints to the authorities. In the spring of 2016, after hearings triggered by a police complaint to the General Medical Council, she temporarily lost the right to practice medicine, until a higher court reinstated her, declaring most of the first findings “unsustainable.” She is still prohibited from testifying in British courts for another year and a half.

The actions against her have successfully stifled the voices of dissent, Dr. Squier argues, leaving innocent families “defenseless” against their accusers. “Back in 2005, Linda had seven medical experts to support her. Today she would be likely to have none.”

Some other key points from Dr. Squier’s talk:

“So today, as I stand here, I am sure that shaking can harm babies, and we certainly shouldn’t shake babies. But nearly 50 years of research has failed to provide us with the justification to make the assumption that a baby who has the triad or any of its components must have been shaken.”

“If we do nothing, then ordinary people, people who have already suffered the tragedy of the death of a baby, will continue to have their families torn apart by incorrect and unscientific opinions…

“If we do nothing, this travesty will continue… this willful refusal of the courts and the doctors advising them to recognize the science that shows they are wrong.”

But you might have other favorite quotes. I suggest you watch the entire talk.

Copyright 2018, Sue Luttner

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

10 Comments

Filed under parents accused, SBS, shaken baby

Shaken Baby Theory: Poking the Hornet’s Nest

The July issue of Acta Paediatrica offers a collection of free, live links to a volley of rebuttals published over the past four months to an article in March submitted by medical ethicist Dr. Niels Lynøe and most of the other experts who informed the 2016 Swedish report critical of shaking theory, commissioned by a government agency whose name is abbreviated SBU.

In an email exchange last week, Dr. Lynøe wrote that his team knew the topic was controversial, but they were “rather surprised” at the vehemence of the criticisms. “I also think that there was something positive with the critical comments,” he added, “because we got the opportunity to explain and explore some aspects more.”

Dr. Niels Lynøe

The March paper reported on the same research as the SBU study, an exhaustive evaluation of the shaken baby literature that ultimately declared the scientific evidence behind shaking theory “weak.” The analysis noted fundamental problems with the bulk of the published research—in a typical study design, the report noted, researchers had applied the criteria they were attempting to prove when identifying and sorting their subjects, so the results necessarily supported their theory.

Weeks after the Lynøe et al. paper appeared, Acta Paediatrica published an editorial  by epidemiology professor Jonas F. Ludvigsson criticizing  the SBU’s methods and warning of an “imminent risk” that the paper will discourage the reporting of child abuse and leave abused children undiagnosed. Dr. Ludvigsson conceded quality problems with past SBS research, but rejected the SBU’s conclusions and endorsed reliance on the triad:

“[The study’s] publication in Acta Paediatrica does not spell the end of the discussion. Instead, it is a clear signal that more research is needed. But for now, paediatricians should continue to alert social services when they observe a child with the triad, once other explanations for subdural haematomas, retinal haemorrhages and brain ischaemia and oedema have been ruled out.”

The next critique of Lynøe et al., in mid April, added irony to the collection by denying the triad itself. An editorial by violence and abuse specialist Dr. Steven Lucas and others charged that the SBU’s methods had become “untethered from the agency’s published methodology” and argued that the study was fundamentally flawed, because it had examined the question of whether the presence of the triad proves infant shaking. Lucas et al. wrote:

“The construct of the ‘triad’ represents a rhetorical fallacy known as a straw man, which gives the impression of refuting an opponent’s argument – the ‘triad’ is pathognomonic for AHT – when, in fact, that argument was never advanced by that opponent. We maintain that the term ‘triad’ carries no value for clinicians experienced in evaluating suspected AHT.”

In refutation of the straw man argument, I point out that both Joshua Burns and Michelle Heale were convicted based only on the opinion of child abuse experts that the triad proves abusive head trauma—these cases are not unique, only easy to reference here. I myself have researched dozens of convictions based on the triad, sometimes on only one or two elements of the triad.

Lynøe et al. addressed the straw man argument in a response to a different criticism (the response to Narang et al.), by quoting these physician guidelines, which clearly endorse the triad:

“If there is no history of traffic accident or fall from a considerable height, the combination of subdural hematoma and encephalopathy with edema or hemorrhage strongly suggest that the infant has been abused. If there are also retinal hemorrhages then from the medical point of view the diagnosis of abuse is quite clear.”

Also in April, Acta Paediatrica published an editorial by pediatric ophthalmologist Dr. Alex Levin, who declared, “There is a plethora of scientific evidence that retinal hemorrhages are a cardinal feature of abusive head trauma.” Among other objections to the study, he criticized the SBU’s failure to consider the various possible sizes and locations of retinal hemorrhages. “To ignore these descriptors,” he wrote, “is like saying that a rose is no different than any other ‘flower.'”

Dr. Levin also objected that the SBU team had ignored the “wealth of clinical experience” available from the community of child abuse experts.  He argued that certain retinal findings, even in the absence of any other evidence, should shift the assumption to one of abuse:

“A diagnosis of abuse should not be made solely based on retinal haemorrhages, but certain retinal findings make that likelihood dramatically high, so high that one must actively seek (or rule out) supportive evidence that the child has been abused and is in need of protection.”

Another commentary in the April issue, by eye and vision specialist Dr. Kerstin Hellgren and others, called the SBU report “misleading.” In an apparent endorsement of both the triad and the literature that supports it, the authors wrote:

“The SBU report concludes that there is only limited evidence that shaking of an infant can cause the triad signs, in contrast with the numerous reports describing such lesions in victims of verified shaking. It is unfortunate that the SBU panel neither included a paediatrician nor a paediatric ophthalmologist with experience of child abuse to facilitate a correct interpretation of the cited papers.”

In a response to both Levin and Hellgren et al., the Lynøe authors reiterated their commitment to objectivity:

“If physicians involved in child protection teams embraced the research question as if it was a generally accepted scientific fact when classifying cases and controls, this would have resulted in circular reasoning when estimating the diagnostic accuracy of the triad. For that reason, and in order to avoid conflicts of interest and circular reasoning, the expert panel did not include any experts associated with child protection teams. The panel comprised two paediatricians and one expert each from the fields of forensic medicine, radiology, epidemiology and medical ethics. All the included had long experience of assessing scientific work and were scrutinised for potential conflicts of interest and cleared by the Agency. The expert panel followed the guidance in handbooks for assessing health technology and any other panel reproducing the study would have probably arrived at the same conclusions.”

In May, Dr. Sandeep Narang and Dr. Christopher Greeley, both renowned child abuse specialists, published a column in the Acta Paeditrica series “A Different View” that lambasted the methodology, objectivity, and transparency of the SBU study. Like Lucas et al., Narang and Greeley declared the triad a “strawman,” with the statement:

“Physicians experienced in the clinical evaluation of paediatric traumatic brain injury and AHT do not diagnose SBS by a ‘triad’.”

Narang and Greeley also found it “troubling” that the SBU panel “was offered and refused external peer review by no fewer than seven international professional medical societies” before the publication of their report, and charged that the panel was biased in two ways:

  • One of the SBU panelists had testified before the highest court in Sweden, prior to the study, that “the diagnostic model of the ‘triad’ for diagnosing SBS ‘has been criticised’, and that ‘there is currently no clarity about the extent to which the components of the triad are specific to violent shaking’.”
  • A former chair of the SBU had also testified in the same case, and “has openly expressed scepticism of the diagnosis of AHT because of his personal experiences with a family member being criminally charged in a suspected shaken baby case.”

Another “Different View” column published in May, by Dr. Robert A.C. Bilo and others, focused specifically on the papers used to support the study’s conclusion that the triad had many “alternative explanations.” Bilo et al. rejected the cases and papers cited in support of these explanations, with three main arguments:

  • many of the cases would never have been diagnosed as abuse, because the children clearly suffered other medical conditions
  • some of the cases did not fully conform to the triad
  • some of the cases were in fact abuse misrepresented as organic causes

Like other critics, including Lucas et al., the Bilo authors accused the SBU of applying a double standard, because the reviewers accepted individual case reports as evidence for other causes, while they rejected studies with fewer than 10 cases from their main literature review.

Lynøe et al. clarified in their response that the papers cited as evidence for other causes had simply emerged during their literature review, and had been rejected from the main study for the same reasons as many others. They explained:

“From an epidemiological point of view, and due to random fluctuations, studies with less than 10 study cases are of very limited value. But when looking for differential diagnoses, one single case is sufficient to question the general assumption that when the triad is present the infant must have been violently shaken.”

The original study had addressed the question:

With what certainty can it be claimed that the triad, subdural hematoma, retinal hemorrhages and encephalopathy, is attributable to isolated traumatic shaking (i.e. when no external signs of trauma are present)?

The Acta Paediatrica treatment articulated the answer in two, subtly different conclusions. First:

“[T]here is insufficient scientific evidence on which to assess the diagnostic accuracy of the triad in identifying traumatic shaking (very low-quality evidence).”

That is, the literature supporting the opinion that the presence of the triad proves a child was shaken is “insufficient,” because none of the papers supporting that opinion ranked above “very low-quality.” Second:

“[T]here is limited scientific evidence that the triad and therefore its components can be associated with traumatic shaking (low-quality evidence).”

That is, the researchers found some low-quality papers supporting the opinion that traumatic shaking causes the triad—two French papers based on confessions—but no medium- or high-quality papers. Before reaching their conclusions, the authors had read and evaluated 1,000 academic papers, only 30 of which met their inclusion criteria. They ranked 28 of those 30 papers as having a “high risk of bias,” 2 of them as having a “moderate risk,” and none of them as having a “low risk” of bias (a flow chart illustrating the literature search).

In an over-reaching answer to their many critics, the Lynøe team called for a more scientific approach to research in the arena:

“We acknowledge the concerns expressed by all of the authors who responded with regard to child welfare and the possibility that the diagnoses may be delayed in individual cases of child abuse. However, we are very troubled by the disregard displayed by those authors to the significant methodological problems inherent in published research on shaken baby syndrome. With the exception of Ludvigsson, none of these authors expressed concern about the problems of circular reasoning, lack of comparison groups or the other methodological problems we identified in the systematic review. Where has all the critical thinking in research gone?…

“The purpose of a systematic review is to examine the quality of published research. With that in mind, please accept the substantial difficulties and limitations of previous research carried out by the ‘shaken baby syndrome’ and ‘abusive head trauma’ and help to add true knowledge by performing better research that overcomes the methodological problems.”

copyright 2017, Sue Luttner

If you are not familiar with the debate surrounding shaken baby syndrome/abusive head trauma, please see the home page of this blog.

10 Comments

Filed under AHT, shaken baby syndrome, 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

15 Comments

Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, parents accused

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.

 

8 Comments

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

Swedish Review Declares Shaken Baby Theory Unproven

sbuheaderSwedish agency charged with assessing health technology and social services has published a review of the shaken baby literature declaring the scientific evidence for shaking theory “weak” and noting that a number of other medical conditions can cause the findings typically used to diagnose shaking injury.

The posted report from the SBU (Statens Feredning för Medicinsk Och Social Utvärdering) is in Swedish, so I am relying on a Google translation and private email exchanges with native Swedish speakers for this summary.

Feb. 2017 update: The report is now available in English

babySilhouetteThe SBU team looked only at cases of pure shaking, without evidence of impact, in children younger than 12 months, and they set standards regarding sample size, study design, and more.  Their literature search strategies yielded 3,773 abstracts, and they screened 1,065 of the articles in full text. Only 30 of the papers met their reliability guidelines. The authors ranked two of those papers as medium quality, designating 28 of them low quality and none of them high quality.

The report identifies the recurring problems with the published research, especially the circular reasoning introduced when shaken infants are identified by the criteria being studied. The two papers that passed the quality review are both from France, Vinchon 2010 and Adamsbaum 2010:

  • Vinchon M, de Foort­Dhellemmes S, Desurmont M, Delestret I. “Confessed abuse versus witnessed accidents in infants: comparison of clinical, radiological, and ophthalmological data in corroborated cases.” Childs Nerv Syst 2010;26:637­45
  • Adamsbaum C, Grabar S, Mejean N, Rey­Salmon C. “Abusive head trauma: judicial admissions highlight violent and repetitive shaking.” Pediatrics 2010;126:546­55

Both papers used confessions to identify abused children—the report noted that neither paper provided details of the circumstances in which the confessions were obtained.

The SBU report follows a Swedish Supreme Court decision last year that overturned the conviction of a father with the observation (from the English translation of the decision):

It can be concluded that, in general terms, the scientific evidence for the diagnosis of violent shaking has turned out to be uncertain.

This week’s report, which confirms the court’s conclusion, has made a splash in the Swedish press, with headlines like “Shaky support [skakig bevisning] för shaken-baby-syndrome.” Google translates the introductory paragraph of that piece as:

The diagnosis of “shaken baby syndrome” has previously been questioned both medically and legally. Now comes the SBU and Smers investigative report argues that the evidence of [shaking violence] not measure up.

Mats Hellberg, a board member of the Swedish group RFFR (Riksförbundet För Famijers Råttigheter, or National Association for the Rights of Families), reports that the Swedish child protection teams are objecting that the SBU’s conclusions will make it harder for them to protect children in the future. “Positions are extremely polarized and group thinking is strong,” he wrote.

In addition to criticizing the existing literature, the report suggests the kinds of research that would help resolve the ongoing debate about shaking theory. I hope the SBU analysis, which I’m told is now being translated into English, will trigger more reflection, more rigorous research, and more clear thinking about shaken baby theory.

Oct. 29 update:  With thanks to readers who alerted me:  The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the Society for Pediatric Radiology, and a number of other professional organizations approached the SBU earlier this month, asking for input on the final report before it was published. These letters were published in the Swedish periodical Expressen, which presented them as an attempt to interfere with the independent Swedish review. There is a translation tool at the top of their on-line treatment, which includes close-ups on the letters in the photo collection. An excerpt from the AAP letter:

“Medical and biomechanical research, clinical and pathologic experience, and radiologic evidence have confirmed the understanding of the range of mechanism that contribute to brain injury from these forms of abuse.

“Because a report from the SBU could have global medical, public health, and legal ramifications, we respectfully request that you allow international peer review by AAP experts on child abuse, pediatric radiology, neurological surgery, and that you consider their feedback in the final report. In addition, we request that you promptly provide us with the draft report so that we can evaluate your  methods, sources, conclusions, and review processes and prepare a timely response if appropriate.”

I think it’s fair to assume the AAP is now working on a rebuttal.

If you are unfamiliar with the debate about shaken baby syndrome, please see the home page of this blog.

copyright 2016, Sue Luttner

15 Comments

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