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Rethinking Shaken Baby Syndrome Convictions

Medill Innocence Project begins investigating potential miscarriages of justice

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October 2, 2012

EVANSTON, Ill. --- The Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern University has begun investigating cases of potential miscarriage of justice where caregivers have been convicted of shaking infants and causing damage that often leads to death -- known as shaken-baby syndrome.

The project is looking into two cases in the Chicago area and is also putting together what will be the first publicly available national database of such cases.

The Medill Innocence Project previously has not accepted shaken-baby syndrome cases for its investigative classes. “Typically there are no adult witnesses and no evidence at the scene,” said Medill Professor Alec Klein, who directs the Medill Innocence Project. “If the classic triad of shaken-baby syndrome symptoms is present -- retinal bleeding, brain swelling and brain bleeding -- it is often assumed that a caregiver caused them. But science has evolved and some of the assumptions are being challenged.”

Student fellows working with Klein and research associate Alison Flowers this summer discovered that the pediatric neurosurgeon, Dr. Norman Guthkelch, whose seminal research in the early 1970s helped lay the foundation for what became known as shaken-baby syndrome, now feels his work has been distorted and used to make insupportable conclusions.  

Guthkelch, who is 96 and continues to be consulted for expert opinion in these cases, wrote a final paper “Swan Song,” which is published on the Medill Innocence Project website, as is an audio interview. In the paper he writes:

“Society is rightly shocked by any assault on its weakest members, and demands retribution. But there seem to have been instances where both medical science and the law have gone too far in criminalizing alleged acts of violence of which the only evidence has been the changed clinical state of the infant. Rather, there seems to have been inadequate enquiry into the possibility that the picture resulted from natural causes. In reviewing a number of cases where the alleged assailant has continued to proclaim his/her innocence, I have been struck by the high proportion of these in which there was a significant history of previous illness, and of abnormalities of structure and function of the nervous system. Yet these matters were hardly, if at all, considered in the medical reports.”

The Medill Innocence Project has also compiled a national database and is going through a detailed fact-checking process of about 1,400 cases. Student summer fellows Mihir Boddupalli and Mary McGrath gathered 38 categories of information that include symptoms, official cause of death, charges, the defendant’s relationship to the infant, the experts who testified at trial, as well as other basic case information. Klein said he hopes the database, when complete and published, will serve the public, including medical and criminal justice professionals and academics as well as individuals and families.

Irish barrister Alison Enright, a visiting scholar at the Medill Innocence Project this summer, reviewed and contrasted practices in the United Kingdom and the United States in a paper published on the project’s site. She noted that, based on advice from the Royal College of Pathologists, the Crown Prosecution Service in the United Kingdom last year issued advice to prosecutors that the triad of classic symptoms is now considered insufficient by themselves for charges of homicide, attempted murder or assault. 

Enright writes that:

“Despite the growing international recognition of the dangers and flaws inherent in prosecutions based on the triad of injuries, the United States continues to adhere to the classic shaken-baby syndrome prosecution paradigm, raising a real possibility that miscarriages of justice continue to occur and innocent people are being wrongfully convicted.”

This past spring, the Medill Innocence Project investigative class began looking into the case of Jennifer Del Prete, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison in the death of an infant she was caring for in 2002. “The students did a remarkable job digging into the case,” Klein said. “As we were going through the term, I became increasingly convinced that there was a need not only to look at specific cases, but to look at shaken-baby syndrome as a systemic issue in the United States.”

In August, the Medill Innocence Project received the Sunshine Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for important contributions in the area of open government.