Criminal Justice

Evidence in 'shaken baby' cases not as clear-cut as once thought, expert says

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Few would disagree that it is possible to injure a baby by shaking it and that those who do so should face child-abuse cases.

But are individuals being convicted, sometimes of murder, based on dubious or even inaccurate evidence? That is the question explored by a new Retro Report video series, and it appears that the answer to the question is yes, according to the New York Times (reg. req.).

So-called shaken baby syndrome (abusive head trauma is now the preferred term) is characterized by a “triad” of symptoms: bleeding on the brain’s surface, swelling of the brain and bleeding behind the eyes.

However, it now appears that such symptoms are not confined to shaken babies. They could be present from long-ago injuries, even a stroke in utero, and might not even have been caused by criminal conduct, says Dr. Patrick Barnes, a neurologist now affiliated with Stanford University.

In 1997, Barnes was at Children’s Hospital in Boston and served as a prosecution witness in the landmark Massachusetts murder trial of au pair Louise Woodward.

Convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 15 years to life, she caught a break when the trial judge reduced the conviction to involuntary manslaughter and the sentence to the 279 days she had already served awaiting trial.

If he had to testify in the same case today, Barnes says, he would say that medical findings don’t confirm abuse and the death of the baby in Woodward’s care “could have been accidental.”

See also: “Judge orders release of Illinois inmate in ‘shaken baby’ death”

48 Hours: “Blaming Melissa”

ABA Journal (2011): “Unsettling Science: Experts Are Still Debating Whether Shaken Baby Syndrome Exists”

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