Deborah Tuerkheimer is a Professor of Law at Northwestern University and the author of "Flawed Convictions: 'Shaken Baby Syndrome' and the Inertia of Injustice." She also appears on Saturday's "48 Hours" investigation into the case of Melissa Calusinski, a former day care provider who says she is wrongfully convicted in a toddler's death. Here, Tuerkheimer weighs in on questionable convictions in child death cases. Her opinions do not necessarily reflect those of CBS News.
A few months ago, a 55-year-old Florida day care provider became yet another caregiver accused of shaking a toddler to death. The woman, who had worked with children for decades, denied harming the boy. But pediatricians concluded that this was a case of Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS).
Even before an autopsy was performed, the state charged the woman with murder. She is being held in jail without bond and if convicted, she faces mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Based on the press reports, this case resembles many that I have written about in my book, Flawed Convictions: "Shaken Baby Syndrome" and the Inertia of Injustice. Without witnesses or external signs of abuse, the classic diagnosis of Shaken Baby Syndrome rests on three neurological symptoms, otherwise known as the "triad": bleeding beneath the outermost layer of the brain, retinal bleeding, and brain swelling.
These symptoms are said to prove that a baby was violently shaken and, what's more, to identify the abuser-- whoever was present when the child was last lucid. Shaken Baby Syndrome is, in essence, a medical diagnosis of murder. In order to convict, prosecutors must rely entirely on the claims of science.
But the science has shifted. In recent years, there has been a growing consensus among experts that the neurological symptoms once viewed as conclusive evidence of abuse may well have natural causes, and that old brain injuries can re-bleed upon little or no impact.
In short, current science raises significant questions about the guilt of many caregivers convicted of shaking babies.
Reflecting real movement in the direction of doubt, this past spring, a federal judge in Chicago issued a ruling of "actual innocence" in the case of Jennifer Del Prete, a caregiver accused of shaking a baby in her care. (My book describes this trial in detail.) Del Prete was able to show that, based on what doctors now know about alternative causes of the triad, no reasonable jury could possibly find Del Prete guilty of murder. Indeed, according to the reviewing judge, a lack of evidentiary support for the theory of Shaken Baby Syndrome means that the diagnosis is arguably "more an article of faith than a proposition of science."
Our legal system has been slow to absorb this new reality. As a consequence, innocent parents and caregivers remain incarcerated and, perhaps more inexplicably, prosecutions based solely on the "triad" symptoms continue even to this day. The cautionary tale of Shaken Baby Syndrome shows that our system is too inclined to stay the course, and awful injustices can result.