NPR is running a difficult to listen to but important series this week on how flawed science regarding Shaken Baby Syndrome was used to send more than one innocent parent to jail — sometimes for life.
In the last few years, what had once been considered irrefutable symptoms of Shaken Baby Syndrome — bleeding at the back of the eye, bleeding in the protective area of the brain, and brain swelling — have come under scrutiny. Some blood diseases produce the same bleeding and swelling and only a blood test can determine the difference.
Even the neurosurgeon who came up with the diagnosis, Norman Guthkelch, thinks the syndrome is overdiagnosed and has concerns about innocent parents or caretakers going to jail because of it.
Guthkelch is concerned that there are too many cases like the one he recently reviewed in Arizona. A defense attorney asked him to look at the case of a father who has spent 10 years in prison after being convicted of killing his 5-month-old son by shaking him.
After reviewing the trial record and medical reports, Guthkelch said he was troubled to see that the medical examiner’s autopsy had concluded that the baby died of shaken baby syndrome while discounting other possible causes: A month prior to the child’s death, the boy had been admitted to the hospital with uncontrolled seizures. The baby had also briefly been in the neonatal intensive care ward after a difficult birth.
To Guthkelch, this suggests the boy may have instead died from natural causes. “I think I used the expression in my report, ‘I wouldn’t hang a cat on the evidence of shaking, as presented.’ “
NPR and ProPublica teamed up for the report, which you can listen to online. The series tells the heartbreaking story not only of the death of these babies, but also of the false imprisonment of parents. The story of Tammy Marquardt is particularly horrifying. When her 2-year-old son got tangled in the sheets and died, she had another older boy and was also pregnant with a third. Based on forensic evidence which turned out to have been tainted, she was convicted and sent to prison for life. Her two surviving boys were adopted into other families. She served 14 years in prison and was released on parole. Since then, her case has been re-examined, as have many others in Canada. Marquardt recently gave birth to another daughter, but she still suffers from having lost her sons.
Another is the story of Ernie Lopez, a Texas father who was babysitting a 6-month-old who had recently been bitten by a spider. The girl died in his arms while he was on the phone with a 9-1-1 operator. A subsequent autopsy showed bleeding in all the Shaken Baby Syndrome areas and he was convicted — even though many members of the jury said later they believed he didn’t do it. His attorney didn’t counter with medical experts and all the jury had to go on was the attitude that bleeding symptoms equates with abuse.
Lopez is still in jail but his case has been taken up by many pro bono medical experts and attorneys.
I know when writing about the challenges to a Shaken Baby Syndrome diagnosis, there’s a lot of suspicion that people who are getting released from jail have gotten away with something. But this report shows clearly that an attitude of guilty until proven innocent colored medical opinions.
What do you think?