Thank you, Double X for pointing us toward a fascinating article in Reason magazine about changes in how the medical community views so-called “shaken baby syndrome.” Despite hundreds of convictions each year — many using “expert testimony” — researchers, doctors and legal experts have lately been asking whether it is even possible to shake a baby to death.
For a long time, the death of any baby that showed these three symptoms — bleeding at the back of the eye, bleeding in the protective area of the brain, and brain swelling — was thought to be caused by having been vigorously shaken by a caretaker. Almost everybody who purported to know anything about SBS thought those three symptoms could only occur in an infant who had been shaken with a force equivalent to a fall from a three-story window or a car going between 25 and 40 mph.
More recent research, using lifelike infant dolls, suggests vigorous shaking produces bleeding equivalent to a 2-foot to 3-foot fall. More importantly, shaking experiments with the infant-like dolls could not produce the three symptoms prosecutors were using to pin SBS deaths on caretakers.
The research implies that human beings simply cannot shake a baby to death without an accompanying impact to the head. SBS cases, however, frequently show no external injuries. This suggests that other causes are at work. Additional research has shown babies to be lucid up to 72 hours before classic SBS symptoms set in, casting doubt on the long-held theory that the child’s caretaker at the time of death (or loss of consciousness) was the likely killer.
Reason links to this article in Discover magazine while lays out the research and findings nicely. They also interview several specialists who, more than once, testified for the prosecution in SBS cases yet now dispute the original research.
A couple of years ago, a Wisconsin court granted a new trial to a woman who had been sentenced to 18 years in prison for an SBS conviction. The court demonstrated there are enough questions about the science and research to question whether she had been fairly convicted.
What’s scary is that 200 people are sentenced every year for SBS deaths. If the research is true, and the medical community is starting to agree, that means a lot of innocent people are sitting in jail.
DePaul University law professor Deborah Teurkheimer thinks its time for U.S. courts to review all SBS cases from the past 20 years. Meanwhile, the same day the Wisconsin court granted that new trial, they denied a new trial for a woman convicted under similar circumstances.