Legal Challenges Coming to “Shaken Baby” Cases
With medical advances in understanding the mechanisms of childhood brain trauma, there have come new questions about the fairness of verdicts convicting caregivers of what is often referred to as “shaken baby syndrome.”
After 17 years in prison for an infant's death at her San Diego daycare center, Suzanne Johnson is in the forefront of these legal challenges. Last month a judge agreed Johnson deserved to be considered for a new trial in a case that hinged on the syndrome -- a 1970s-era forensic diagnosis long accepted as sufficient to convict caretakers accused of harming and even killing babies.
Similar appeals are occurring with greater frequency at both the federal and state levels, said Deborah Tuerkheimer, a Northwestern University law professor who wrote a book on the subject.
The new terminology is "abusive head trauma." It’s the leading cause of fatal child abuse in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and conviction rates are higher than for other violent crimes.
Of 1,800 resolved cases since 2001, roughly 1,600 resulted in convictions, the Washington Post reported in 2015 after a year-long investigation. Because the accused are typically trusted caregivers or parents, the consequences of a wrongful conviction are especially devastating, not only for defendants but for their children and spouse.
For 40 years or more, pathologists, pediatricians and courts have recognized a distinct set of internal head injuries -- brain swelling, bleeding on the surface of the brain and behind the eyes -- as proof of death by deliberate shaking, even in the absence of other overt signs of violence.
But medical consensus has shifted in recent years and research now shows such injuries can be caused by accidental falls from a short height, or even medical conditions such as blood-clotting disorders and latent trauma from a difficult birth, which can manifest weeks later.
Johnson, now 71, remains in prison while her bid for exoneration is pending. Defense lawyer Alissa Bjerkhoel said she is hopeful prosecutors will ultimately concede the case.