A Bartlett day-care provider whose 13-year-old shaken baby death conviction is under scrutiny has drawn additional support from a group of Northwestern University students and their professor.
After investigating new medical studies and other developments, the school's Medill Innocence Project has published findings questioning whether Pamela Jacobazzi was wrongly imprisoned for fatally shaking a child.
A jury convicted Jacobazzi in 1999 of shaking 10-month-old Matthew Czapski so violently in 1994 that he went into a vegetative state. He died more than a year later at age 2.
She was sentenced to 32 years in prison and is eligible for parole from downstate Lincoln Correctional Center in about three years.
But Jacobazzi — who has been persistent in claiming her innocence since Matthew's death — has new evidentiary hearings scheduled in January and another in May that could result in a new trial.
Northwestern journalism professor Alec Klein, director of the Medill Innocence Project, said Jacobazzi's case caught his attention while he and his students were examining shaken baby cases throughout the country.
"There were a number of features that raised questions for me," Klein said. "For one, the pediatric records of the infant who passed away were not examined during her trial. These apparently showed that the infant had a number of medical issues. That seemed, as a starting point, to raise questions about the conviction."
For similar reasons, an appellate court granted Jacobazzi a review this summer.
Jacobazzi's 1999 conviction came after a flurry of medical experts testified for the prosecution that the child had what they refer to as a "triad" of internal head injuries that could be attributed only to being shaken.
But later, her attorney argued the jury never heard about pre-existing conditions that could have caused the boy's death. Those conditions, including persistent fevers and characteristics of sickle cell anemia, will be the focus of her hearing in January.
The Medill team — which Klein said included 10 junior and senior students working intensively this fall under his direction — also pointed to new medical knowledge that has emerged in the 18 years since Matthew's death.
Their article, published Tuesday at medillinnocenceproject.org, cites interviews with ophthalmologist Deena Leonard, who examined Matthew's eyes the day after he entered Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge.
She discovered hemorrhages and told the Medill team they could have been caused by various factors including anemia, bleeding disorders and brain trauma.
According to the article: "Leonard, ... (who) called the patterns in his eyes 'consistent with shaken injury,' said in an interview for this article that she doesn't understand why Jacobazzi was convicted. 'That child was shaken, I can say that with confidence,' she said. 'My question is, how do we know it was the baby sitter?'"
During their research, the Medill team consulted with numerous medical experts and studies conducted over the past several years, interviewed Jacobazzi family members, neighbors and former clients, submitted five Freedom of Information Act requests and obtained thousands of pages of court records and police reports.
They also dug through hospital, pediatric, medical examiner, children and family services and property documents.
As a result, Klein said, they found the police investigation also was lacking.
The Medill article cites a written report by Joseph Leonas, the lead detective on Matthew's case, indicating the Bartlett Police Department's investigation focused on Jacobazzi from the beginning.
Leonas did not respond to interview requests for the Medill article. Police Chief Kent Williams did not immediately return calls Tuesday from the Daily Herald.
"Leonas ... testified that during his inquiry he never did any type of investigation at Jacobazzi's home, no evidence technician went to her house, and he never took photos of the alleged crime scene," the Medill article states. "He testified that he did not try to contact any of Jacobazzi's neighbors and that he never looked into the backgrounds of the individuals involved in the case. "
Matthew Czapski's parents did not speak to Medill for the article, and they have previously declined Daily Herald interview requests.
Klein said the Medill Innocence Project is a journalism organization, not an advocacy group. So their investigation and article stand alone.
"At this point, it's in the hands of the criminal justice system," Klein said.
But their findings come after Jacobazzi earlier picked up backing from the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project, which is calling on Gov. Pat Quinn to grant her clemency.
Jacobazzi's attorney did not immediately return calls to comment on how the Medill article might influence the January hearing. A spokesman for DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin's office said he could not comment on a pending case.
Ultimately, Klein said, Medill will continue looking into shaken baby syndrome cases around the country and aims to create a public, national database that will include new medical information on the syndrome, criminal case details and more.
He said his students also will continue investigating the Jacobazzi case.
"A number of things in the investigation seemed like they weren't throughly vetted," Klein said. "When she was convicted, at that time it was believed ... the head trauma was so immediate and catastrophic it had to be the last caregiver. Now we know you may not realize the infant has a problem until much later. How do we know she was responsible if we can't pinpoint when the injury occurred?
"On top of that, throw in her personal background, with no known prior record, a devout Catholic who volunteered at her church, and a mother," Klein said. "The questions are whether they got the right person and whether a crime even occurred."