Wednesday, 17 November 2010

SBS: Calise trial in Ohio analyzes shaken baby syndrome

Edward Markovich
November 15th, 2010
On November 15, 2010 the State of Ohio will begin to try the case of  young Tiffani Calise in Akron, Ohio for the crime of allegedly shaking a baby to death. The charge is involuntary manslaughter, and child endangering. The case is somewhat incoherent, either she hurt the baby bad enough to cause its death or she didn't. If she did, it seems a case of simple homicide, until you examine the shaky basis of so-called shaken baby syndrome.
For the past quarter of a century, medical professionals have routinely been taught that shaking a baby can cause injuries so severe that irreversible brain damage or death will likely result from the act of shaking alone. In Akron, Childrens' Hospital's Dr. Steiner has specialized in diagnosing and testifying regarding alleged cases of shaken infants, resulting in past convictions of young parents and caregivers. But international courts, most recently in Canada and Great Britain, have called for a review of all shaken baby convictions on the basis of new scientific data undermining its reliability as a forensic medical diagnosis.
In American courts, the rule of admissibility of expert scientific opinions follows the case of Daubert v. Merrill Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579 (1993) . The United States Supreme Court held in that case that the enactment of the Federal Rules of Evidence impliedly overturned the earlier Frye rule. In a 1923 case, Frye v. United States, 293 F. 1013 (D.C. Cir. 1923), the court held that evidence could be admitted in court only if "the thing from which the deduction is made" is "sufficiently established to have gained general acceptance in the particular field in which it belongs." After Daubert changes in medical science can be admitted even before all opinions have agreed in one scientific area.
In 2008, a Wisconsin jury convicted Audrey Edmunds of murdering her baby by shaking, and she was sentenced to eighteen years in prison. On January 31, 2008, Audrey Edmunds was granted a new trial on the basis of new scientific thinking. For the first time, a court examining the foundation of shaken baby syndrome held that it had become sufficiently shaky itself that a new jury probably would have a reasonable doubt as to the defendant‘s guilt. As the United States Supreme Court emphasized in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., ―[v]igorous cross-examination, presentation of contrary evidence, and careful instruction on the burden of proof are the traditional and appropriate means of attacking shaky but admissible evidence.‖”
Could it be that shaken-baby syndrome has become itself such a shaky, negative forensic diagnosis, (meaning it attaches to the last person who happened to be caring for the child when it loses consciousness), that Ohio doesn't have the heart to charge her with murder? In Tiffani Calise's case, she happened to be babysitting for the baby who died later from alleged shaking. Although involuntary manslaughter is much less serious than intentional or negligent homicide, it seems that her case may depend not just on facts and law, but on a growing awareness that past cases of infant death may have been decided on a very shaky scientific foundation, which is now under reconstruction.

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