Tag Archives: wrongful conviction

Grace in Exoneration, After 18 Years

Even as she went to trial in 2003, Tonia Miller says, she expected to be found innocent. She knew she hadn’t abused her baby, she explains, and, “I trusted the justice system.” Her chuckle at her own youthful naïveté is more wry than bitter.

Unfortunately for Tonia, the medical experts at the time were adamant and unanimous. Even though 11-week-old Alicia showed no bruises, grip marks, or fractures, even though the baby had been sick her entire life, with chronic collections of subdural blood possibly dating from birth, and even though no one had ever seen Tonia mistreat either her baby or her toddler, doctors testified at trial that the pattern of bleeding and swelling inside Alicia’s head could mean only one thing: Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS). The young mother was found guilty of second-degree murder.

But those experts were wrong.

Tonia’s conviction was vacated in 2020, after four new experts brought in by the Michigan Innocence Clinic re-examined the medical records and concluded, unanimously, that Alicia had died from pneumonia.

“There was nothing subtle here,” emphasizes clinical law professor David Moran, co-founder of the Michigan Innocence Clinic and the driving force behind the appeal. “The pneumonia was blindingly obvious. But the presence of the triad closed down critical thinking. No one ever questioned the initial diagnosis.” Moran calls the case “an especially stark example” of shaking theory in the courtroom.

Incredibly, the autopsy report had noted pneumonia in the child’s lungs, and she’d been recovering from a respiratory infection, a well-recognized precursor to pneumonia in newborns. In the weeks before Alicia’s collapse, Tonia had sought medical help for her daughter repeatedly, with reports of weak sucking, breathing problems, and even seizures, witnessed not only by Tonia but also by relatives and neighbors.

Moran’s appeal also argued that the triad of findings—retinal hemorrhage, subdural hematoma, and cerebral edema—underpinning Tonia’s conviction is no longer considered proof of shaking. The appeal judge concluded that SBS has become “controversial” and noted “a shift in the scientific consensus.”

Dr. Steven Gabaeff, a clinical forensic medical specialist and an emergency physician for 40 years, says he finds the shift-in-consensus element ironic, because there has never been any scientific proof that the triad results only from shaking, despite the testimony at Tonia’s trial. “It was false evidence. It was never true,” he points out, “And this case proves that yet again.”

The pneumonia had compromised Alicia’s lungs, reducing the amount of oxygen available to her brain. Breathing, controlled at the brain stem, is one of the first functions to be affected when the brain is in trouble. Weak breathing can compound the oxygen problem just by itself, and on the morning Alicia was rushed to the hospital, her airways were obstructed by the formula she had apparently choked on. As detailed in the new reports, a series of natural processes readily explains how pneumonia in the lungs can lead to bleeding and swelling in the brain.

Even after her conviction was vacated, Tonia remained in prison while the state appealed the decision. She was finally released on bond in April of 2021, with the spectre of a second trial hanging over her. This fall, the state dropped all charges, and now she is free to plan her life.

Tonia seems to hold few grudges. She says she doesn’t take it personally that the relative who eventually adopted her older daughter cut off all contact—although she still hopes to reconnect with her surviving child, now a young woman. And she understands why Alicia’s father quit writing when he married: “I have to put myself in his wife’s shoes,” she says. “I wouldn’t want my husband in touch with a woman convicted of murdering a baby.”

Tonia even offers a positive angle on her time in prison, which she says gave her the chance to reflect and to process. Her early life was difficult, she says, and “prison helped me deal with those issues from my past.”

Not that the path was easy.

The early interrogations left her numb and confused, she remembers. “The detectives isolated me from everybody… I tried to tell them what happened, but they kept interrupting, saying I was lying. ‘The doctor says that won’t explain it,’ they said. After a while I started thinking, ‘If I tell you what you want to hear, will you just leave me alone?'”

Tonia had said from the first that she had shaken Alicia gently to revive her, after the girl seemed to gasp and quit breathing—but her accusers insisted she had shaken Alicia violently, just before the breathing problems.

As she explains in the essay that accompanies this post, Tonia was “petrified” on her way into prison. Since then, she has risen to the occasion and more. Now that she’s out, she has found a job she likes and is looking forward to finishing her BA—she earned most of the credits she needs while in prison.

Please see Tonia’s reflections on her experience of prison and exoneration, written immediately after her release.

This photo: After escorting her from prison in April of 2021, Tonia’s legal team took her for her first French toast in 18 years.

See also Tonia’s entry in The National Registry of Exonerations.

October, 2021: At the Michigan Innocence Clinic celebration of four wrongly convicted prisoners released this year.

© 2021 Sue Luttner

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

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Filed under abusive head trauma, AHT, parents accused, SBS, shaken baby, shaken baby syndrome, Uncategorized, wrongly accused

GMC Sanction Triggers Public Debate

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Dr. Waney Squier

Last week’s decision by the General Medical Council (GMC) to remove pediatric neuropathologist Waney Squier from the medical register has triggered ongoing media coverage in the UK, including a number of voices speaking in her defense.

The GMC’s sanction followed a declaration earlier in the month by a tribunal that Dr. Squier was guilty of unprofessional conduct. Now she will no longer be allowed to practice or to testify as an expert witness.

Days after the tribunal announced its findings, human rights attorney Clive Stafford Smith published an opinion piece in The Guardian that likened the move to the papal inquisition of Galileo in 1615, a thought echoed a week later in the same forum, in a  letter to the editor signed by 25 medical and legal professionals in response to the GMC’s decision to strike her from the register.

Then The Guardian published a defense of the GMC process by Chief Executive Niall Dickson, who said critics had missed the point:

[T]he GMC is not and has no intention of being the arbiter of scientific opinion – the allegations we brought against Dr Squier did not rest on the validity of her scientific theory but upon her competence and conduct in presenting her evidence to the courts.

That same page contains more letters on both sides, including one by Susan Goldsmith, writer and co-producer of the film about shaking theory, The Syndrome. In another letter today, Clive Stafford Smith says that the charges were, in fact, about her opinion, not her behavior, and argues:

If we are right, then the people who mislead the court (albeit perhaps unintentionally) are those who purvey an unproven theory as fact.

Protecting Innocent Families (PIF), a non-profit that speaks on  behalf of wrongfully accused families, submitted a letter to the GMC in support of Dr. Squier, including an angle that I had not taken the time to address in my post about the decision earlier in the month:

The declaration also scolds Dr. Squier unfairly for her citations of the medical research. In one example, she cited the early biomechanical research of Dr. Anne-Christine Duhaime and colleagues (“The shaken baby syndrome: A clinical, pathological, and biomechanical study,” Journal of Neurosurgery 1987 66:409–415) to support her observation that shaking without impact has not been shown to generate sufficient forces to cause brain injury. The panel wrote that Dr. Squier had “completely misinterpreted what Duhaime had actually said,” a conclusion that baffles us. The Duhaime paper was a landmark in the field, because it was the first attempt to test shaking theory scientifically, and the results surprised even the authors, who wrote:

“It was concluded that severe head injuries commonly diagnosed as shaking injuries require impact to occur and that shaking alone in an otherwise normal baby is unlikely to cause the shaken baby syndrome.”

WindowLogoPIF also released their letter to the press, which led to some confusion, as one resulting story opened with the miscue that the PIF petition is in support of Dr. Squier: “Campaign group defends ‘dishonest’ doctor struck off medical register for ‘shaken baby’ evidence.” Christina England at Health Impact News also quoted generously, and more accurately, from the PIF materials in her treatment, “Shaken baby syndrome expert and world renowned pathologist banned from practicing medicine.” PIF has published the full text of its letter on its web site.

Both the BBC treatment of the decision against Dr. Squier and the coverage in New Scientist presented both sides of the debate, although some articles reported the GMC’s position without mentioning her supporters.

March 29 update: Columnist James Le Fanu at The Telegraph has posted an insightful item criticizing the GMC.

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

copyright 2016 Sue Luttner

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