Sunday, 13 March 2011

SBS: Pennsylvania: 10 years sentence, but denies he shook his child

March 6, 2011

A case in the Cambria County courts could help shape the landscape for the medical and legal concept known as shaken-baby syndrome. On Wednesday, a county judge sentenced a local man to as many as 10 years in prison following the man’s conviction in November. That’s when a jury found him guilty on four charges – aggravated assault, child endangerment, reckless endangerment and simple assault – linked to injuries suffered by his then-2-month-old son in early 2009. The man and his legal team pledged to appeal the conviction.

Reporter Sandra Reabuck wrote for Thursday’s edition that the father said as he was leaving the courtroom that he had “absolutely not” shaken his son. On the national level, the ground is shifting for shaken-baby cases. A superb New York Times Magazine article from early February probes the debate from the perspective of specific cases and how the testimony and ultimate outcomes were impacted by changing views of what “proves” that a baby was shaken and was hurt or died as a direct result.

Shaken-baby syndrome is characterized by head trauma or a brain injury caused by blows to the head, or the dropping, throwing or shaking of a child. Head trauma has been called the leading cause of death in child-abuse cases in our country. Most of us would say we can’t imagine an adult – parent, grandparent, babysitter – overreacting to the point of violently shaking a defenseless infant.

And yet it happens with gut-wrenching frequency, as you can read in the pages of this newspaper. Still, not all who are charged with crimes are guilty. That is why we have courts, attorneys, judges and juries.

Traditionally, doctors said three factors needed to be present to establish that a child’s injuries were caused by shaking – bleeding into the eyes, bleeding onto the brain and brain swelling.
Bleeding around the eyes and brain were among the pieces of evidence that convicted the Cambria County father last fall.
To get a guilty verdict, prosecutors must show evidence that the baby was injured in a way consistent with being shaken, and that the accused was in a position – both physically and emotionally – to cause the injuries.
Was the baby with the accused when the injuries occurred (with that precise time often being a point of contention in courtrooms)?
And was the adult in a state of mind where he or she was even capable of shaking and harming an infant?
A series of appeals involving shaken-baby convictions has begun to call into question the link among those three key factors and reasonable doubt about a person’s guilt.
Some doctors now say such injuries can be linked to birth defects or other influences.
And some of those doctors have found themselves in courtrooms testifying for the defense. Yes this child suffered bleeding, they might say on the stand, but we can’t say definitively that the bleeding was caused by shaking.
One lawyer in the New York Times story said: “If the medical community can’t agree about all the conflicting data and research, how is a jury supposed to reach a conclusion that’s beyond a reasonable doubt?”
That’s a fair question.
The judge in the local case – even as he was handing down the prison sentence – seemed to acknowledge the difficulty of reaching a shaken-baby conviction.
“I was not surprised by the the verdict of ‘guilty,’ and I would not have been surprised by a ‘not guilty’ verdict,” Judge David Tulowitzki said.
What should happen in each instance is justice for all involved – including the baby and the accused adult.
An attorney for the defense isn’t necessarily seeking absolute justice. Rather, the representatives for the accused are striving for an acquittal, or reversal on appeal.
Likewise, a prosecutor’s primary goal is conviction and closure to a case.
Clearly, the challenging step in such situations is often proving that a crime was even committed – before an individual must face the tests of evidence and testimony.
Babies who survive such injuries are too small to take the stand and confront their assailants.
And babies who don’t survive speak only through the work of doctors, pathologists and coroners.
At least the baby in this latest Cambria County case is doing well, according to those close to the family.
How the father ultimately fares remains to be seen, and could provide a key chapter in a growing legal debate.
Chip Minemyer is the editor of The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5091.

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