Saturday, 12 February 2011

SBS: As Experts Disagree About Evidence in Shaken-Baby Cases, Some Verdicts Face New Questions

Feb 7, 2011
It is now conventional wisdom that shaking a baby can leave the child with devastating, sometimes-fatal injuries.
But some experts say the testimony on which criminal courts rely in convicting those responsible for such child abuse may not be as reliable as was once thought, according to the New York Times (reg. req.).
Symptoms thought to conclusively show that shaking had occurred and the time frame in which injuries were deemed to have taken place are increasingly the subject of debate among experts, explains the magazine-length article. And some are also questioning whether innocent people have been wrongfully convicted based on unproven theories that were not aggressively challenged by defense lawyers relying on claimed medical expertise.
For example, “it is simply incorrect to state that severe retinal hemorrhaging is diagnostic of abuse or shaking,” says Evan Matshes. The Canadian forensic pathologist presented a paper on the topic at a 2010 meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.
Another doctor who expresses doubts about conventional wisdom is John Leventhal, a pediatrics professor who serves as child-abuse programs medical director at Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital. He tells the Times a story of an unusual case with a relatively happy ending:
“A child who was sitting in a high chair and put his feet up on the table in front of him ... rocked himself backward,” Leventhal said. “When the child was taken to the hospital, the ophthalmologist said, ‘This is shaken baby,’ because of the massiv e retinal bleeding. Luckily, there were seven people playing cards in the room when the baby fell.”
The article is reminiscent of an earlier vociferous scientific debate over the deaths of other babies due to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Before international research demonstrated that sleep position can be a key factor in such deaths, American experts built something of a cottage industry around breathing patterns and monitors thought to help prevent SIDS, the book The Death of Innocents explains.
That breathing research initially helped protect at least one mother who had multiple babies die and was eventually criminally convicted based on valid evidence, says the book. Published in 1997 and written by journalists Richard Firstman and Jamie Talan, it dramatically describes in detail both the medical researchers and the legal professionals whose work was critical in the eventual resolution of the case.
H. Dale Nute, an adjunct faculty member at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice of Florida State University describes the book as a "dual exposé of science and the law," demonstrating "the need for an open mind" on the part of all professionals involved in child-abuse cases.
"Implicit in the theme of the book is that the task of the investigator is to consider probabilities rather than seek proof for preconceived 'certainties,' " Nute wrote. He suggests other academics might wish to consider assigning the The Death of Innocents as a class reading text.

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