Tag Archives: Tuerkheimer

Flawed Convictions: Breaking Academic Ground

Flawed ConvictionsThe next phase of the shaken baby debate is coming right up:  Next month professor Deborah Tuerkheimer at the DePaul University College of Law is publishing a book through Oxford University Press, USA, that will reject decades of courtroom outcomes in these cases. Flawed Convictions: “Shaken Baby Syndrome” and the Inertia of Injustice promises not only to explain how a flawed theory has become entrenched in the courtroom but also to propose a way out of the morass we are in now.

Prof. Tuerkheimer, once a New York child abuse prosecutor, was already aware of the triad and its role in the courtroom in 2008 when she heard about the successful appeal of the Audrey Edmunds conviction. She studied both the legal arguments and the medical references, and concluded that the Edmunds court was correct: Medical consensus regarding shaken baby syndrome had dissipated since the 1997 trial. As Tuerkheimer explains in the book’s introduction, now available on line:

“The criminal justice implications were staggering. The mainstream medical rethinking recognized by the court could not undermine this one conviction without undermining the convictions of others whose cases also depended on the triad.”

Her first expectation, she writes, was that the Edmunds decision would trigger “a massive institutional effort to correct error.” What she encountered, however, was a system not only poorly equipped to vet medical testimony but also averse to changing course:

“Throughout the process—from prosecutorial decisions, to evidentiary rulings, to judicial review—we see a drive to push forward rather than revisit. A diagnosis of SBS sets in motion systemic confirmation, first in the clinical realm, and then the legal. The course of injustice is almost immovable.”

Prof. Deborah Tuerkheimer

Prof. Deborah Tuerkheimer

Still, Tuerkheimer insists that the course can be changed, and the last chapter of the book will offer her prescription for achieving that goal. I’m hoping she suggests a systematic review of past shaking convictions, as an alternative to the current practice of appealing them one by one.

My favorite line in the promotional blurbs is in the Amazon description, which explains that doctors are no longer sure that the triad can be caused only by abuse, or that the last adult with the child is necessarily guilty, but notes that the legal system has failed to adapt to the change:

As a result, innocent parents and caregivers remain incarcerated and, perhaps more perplexingly, triad-only prosecutions continue even to this day.

You can read a quick summary of Tuerkheimer’s conclusions in her 2010 New York Times op ed piece. She has published two law journal articles on the subject, one explaining her position and calling for change, and a second a few years later, expressing her impatience with the lack of progress.

Her observation on the current situation:

Today, an acceptance of triad-based prosecutions that once was complete has dissolved—alas, to be supplanted by a distibution of justice that is halting and unequal, with disadvantage breaking along familiar lines.

Surely its distinguished author and pedigreed publisher will give Flawed Convictions credibility. I look forward to reading Tuerkheimer’s prescription for change, and I hope her book reaches readers on both sides of the debate.

If you click on the image of the book on the Amazon page, you can read quite a bit of the book itself.

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

copyright 2014, Sue Luttner

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