Science & Technology Law

Judge orders release of Illinois inmate in 'shaken baby' death

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A federal judge has ordered the release of a Chicago-area woman who has spent nearly a decade in prison for the shaken-baby death of a 3½-month-old infant in her care.

Jennifer Del Prete, 43, will be released after posting bond while the courts address her claim of innocence, Chicago U.S. District Court Judge Matthew F. Kennelly ruled Monday, according to Northwestern University’s Medill Justice Project.

Kennelly’s order came in the wake of a 97-page ruling earlier this year in which the judge held that no reasonable jury that had heard all of the evidence in the case would have convicted Del Prete.

In his decision, the judge cited the findings of the justice project, which discovered evidence pointing to Del Prete’s innocence that prosecutors had withheld from the defense.

That evidence included a letter written by a detective in the case who said the pathologist who had performed the autopsy on the victim had expressed significant doubts as to whether Del Prete had shaken the child to death.

The judge, in his order, said Del Prete should not have to wait in custody while her claims of innocence are being investigated in the courts because “the delay is wholly attributable to the law enforcement authorities who did not disclose” the detective’s letter and related evidence to the defense.

“I’m completely ecstatic … a real dream come true,” Del Prete’s 24-year-old daughter Tia, said in a text message cited by the Justice Project. “I’ve been wishing every chance I got for this for the last nine years, and my wish is finally coming true.”

The scientific basis for shaken-baby syndrome has come under sharp attack in the courts in the past several years.

The Medill Justice Project began investigating potential miscarriages of justice involving shaken-baby deaths in 2012. It has also created a national database of shaken-baby syndrome cases and a documentary on the science behind it.

The Illinois Attorney General’s Office, which did not oppose Del Prete’s release, declined to comment on the judge’s order.

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