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Expert Witnesses Probed In 'Shaken-Baby' Murder Conviction

Medill Justice Project students permitted to video record prisoners for first time

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March 19, 2013 | by Wendy Leopold
Students in a winter investigative journalism class led by Professor Alec Klein. 

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Undergraduate journalism students at Northwestern University investigating a former Chicago-area day care worker’s first-degree murder conviction are raising questions about the role of expert testimony in a 2005 Will County, Ill., trial. Jennifer Del Prete is accused of violently shaking a 3 ½-month-old infant at a Romeoville, Ill., day care, causing head injuries that led to her death nearly a year later.

Students in a winter investigative journalism class led by Prof. Alec Klein, director of The Medill Justice Project, formerly the Medill Innocence Project, report in a story published today on www.medilljusticeproject.org that:

  • The defense’s expert medical witness was drastically unmatched in his qualifications compared to the prosecution’s expert witness, a nationally acknowledged child-abuse expert. The defense expert, who was not board certified in pediatrics and had not worked in a pediatric family practice in 22 years, appeared to miscalculate the timing of the infant’s injuries. It was a key assertion that has since been undermined by a battery of medical experts for the defense and prosecution who now acknowledge the infant’s chronic brain bleed began two to three weeks -- or perhaps even weeks earlier -- before she became unresponsive under Del Prete’s care. That means the infant’s injuries could have been sustained before she was under Del Prete’s care. In a sidebar, the students detail new medical evidence that has emerged since Del Prete’s trial about eight years ago.
  • Two years before Del Prete’s trial, in a letter The Medill Justice Project obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, a Romeoville, Ill. police detective warned the state’s expert of a “twist” in the case, telling her of his concern that the forensic pathologist conducting the infant’s autopsy “does not agree with SBS [shaken-baby syndrome], and has testified for the defense in two DuPage County SBS cases.” The forensic pathologist ultimately concluded the child’s injuries were the result of abusive head trauma, testifying that his opinion relied heavily on the prosecution’s expert witness. That expert testified the nature of the child’s eye injuries could only have been the result of child abuse, although studies in recent years have shown there could be other causes.
  • For the first time, The Medill Justice Project was permitted to record on-camera prison interviews. The project, which is airing videos of two prisoners, has been investigating Del Prete’s case for nearly a year and inmate Pamela Jacobazzi’s case since October, publishing investigative findings in December. Both women are former day care workers convicted in shaken-baby syndrome cases and maintain their innocence.

The Medill Justice Project in Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications is also working to create the nation’s first shaken-baby syndrome criminal case database available to the public. As medical experts increasingly question the traditional understanding of shaken-baby syndrome, the specter arises that parents, nannies, day care providers and others may have been imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.