For the past 30 years, doctors have diagnosed the syndrome on the basis of three key symptoms known as the “triad”: retinal hemorrhages, bleeding around the brain and brain swelling. The presence of these three signs (and sometimes just one or two of them) has long been assumed to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the person who was last taking care of the baby shook him so forcefully as to fatally injure his brain.Tuerkheimer points out that hundreds of people — mothers, fathers and babysitters among them — are currently serving time in prison because they have been accused of causing shaken baby syndrome based on evidence that, once believed to be convincing, has now become suspect. Noting that Ontario, Canada, has taken on a review of all convictions for shaken baby syndrome, she laments the slowness of the U.S. legal system to revisit its own shaken baby syndrome cases, in which people were convicted, essentially, for murder, and calls on it to show greater skepticism about the diagnosis in the future.
But closer scrutiny of the body of research that is said to support the diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome has revealed methodological shortcomings. Scientists are now willing to accept that the symptoms once equated with shaking can be caused in other ways. Indeed, studies of infants’ brains using magnetic resonance imaging have revealed that triad symptoms sometimes exist in infants who have not suffered injuries caused by abuse. Bleeding in the brain can have many causes, including a fall, an infection, an illness like sickle-cell anemia or birth trauma.
“The triad of symptoms alone cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that an infant has been fatally shaken,” Tuerkheimer, who is a former assistant D.A. in Manhattan, asserts, adding that the fact that there may be a delay between the time of an injury and a baby’s death adds even more confusion, given that it was long assumed that the person who was caring for a baby displaying the triad of symptoms at the time it died must necessarily have caused the fatal injury.
Lord knows that no one is in favor of shaking babies (ugh, perish the thought), but if mothers, fathers, sitters and other caretakers have been wrongly imprisoned, some of them for years, based on faulty science, for crimes a review of evidence shows that they did not commit, our legal system needs to figure that out. Otherwise, the terrible tragedy of these babies’ deaths has only been compounded.