Shaken Baby Syndrome: Fact or Fiction?


shaken baby syndrome, murder or child abuse defense


The stories are usually similar. A baby arrives at the Emergency Department with no outward signs of trauma but with retinal hemorrhaging and bleeding on the brain. Depending on the seriousness of the injury the last known caregiver of the child is charged with child abuse or murder. In California, it was the 39 year old software entrepreneur whose infant son died suddenly; a 13 year old babysitter in Washington whose charge died in her care resulting in a charge of second degree murder; and a grandmother from Arizona who spent almost 2 1/2 years fighting a capital murder charge. A study conducted by the Washington Post and Medill Justice Project attempted to identify the amount of Shaken Baby cases since 2001. The study found that there were some 1800 cases, and of those, 1600 resulted in convictions; a higher rate than any other violent crime. But now the science behind the diagnosis is being questioned and many of those convictions are in doubt.

The central proposition at question here is not whether violently shaking an infant can lead to traumatic injuries to the brain and spine and ultimately death but whether shaking a baby produces the injuries long associated with Shaken Baby Syndrome–bleeding on the brain, bleeding in the back of the eyes and brain swelling. The theory behind Shaken Baby Syndrome is nearly 40 years old and was developed to explain the absence of trauma rather than the appearance of it. A. Norman Guthkelch, a pediatric neurosurgeon in a busy hospital in northern England, began noticing an alarming pattern of cases in babies where there was blood on the surface of the brain but no signs of trauma to the head. He conducted a survey of 23 assault cases and found that 5 children experienced similar bleeding on the surface of the brain but no visible bruising on the head. A social worker suggested the injuries may be the result of parents disciplining their children by shaking them, which made sense to Guthkelch who had long harbored suspicions that many parents in northern England believed “a good shaking” was a preferable option to hitting their children. Guthkelch published his findings in 1971 and over the next few decades, bleeding on the brain and behind the eyes combined with other signs of trauma and supplemented by caregiver accounts would become the hallmark features of Shaken Baby Syndrome.

Now, some doctors are beginning to question the science behind the syndrome and whether there is really any definitive way, in the absence of visible trauma, to tell if a child was shaken. The controversy brewing among the medical community was brought to the public’s attention in the late 1990’s during the widely followed trial of a 19 year old British nanny, Louise Woodward, accused of murdering the child in her care. The trial became known as the “clash of the medical men,” and it soon became clear that Shaken Baby Syndrome was also on trial. On the one side, doctors who support the diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome say the bleeding on the brain is caused when the tiny, delicate vessel in the brain rupture as a result of violent shaking and suggest the retinal hemorrhaging is conclusive of violent shaking without a plausible alternative explanation. Critics of the diagnosis point out that there are many natural or accidental causes for the brain bleeding often associated with the syndrome and retinal hemorrhaging has been found in children who died from obstructed airways, congenital heart disease and infections.

But doctors are not the only ones beginning to raise doubts about the syndrome. In 2008, a group of biomechanical engineers produced a study to determine the effects of falls from a short distance, like from a couch or changing table, on children’s bodies. The experiments using crash test dummies found that these short falls produced far more acceleration force to the head than violent shaking. But again, supporters of Shaken Baby Syndrome suggest trauma by a short fall would lead to bleeding in a different part of the brain and that crash test dummies are not adequate substitutes for infants. Still, the study and others like it have turned many doctors into skeptics, including Guthkelch. He now testifies on behalf of the defense in an effort to correct what he has described as a “grossly unjust situation.”

Debates like the one surrounding shaken baby syndrome highlight the need for criminal defense attorneys to stay informed about the rapidly changing science that so often finds its way into the courtroom. Whether it is an arson charge or an allegation of child abuse, a good criminal defense attorney must be aware of the controversy surrounding such science and the need for experts to testify at trial. It is not just a debate after all, a conviction for child abuse in Ohio can carry anywhere from six months to eight years in prison, and even more frightening, the tragic death of a child could result in a prison term of 15 years to life for a convicted parent or caregiver.







If you need a lawyer for a criminal or Federal case, call Attorney W. Joseph Edwards (614-309-0243) who has over 25 years experience representing clients in these legal matters.

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