Reliability of Shaken Baby Syndrome Diagnosis Questioned

By Javier Lavagnino, Esq. on June 22, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Inherent Hazards of Forensic Science, Expert Testimony

Shaken Baby Syndrome. The term may bring to mind stories of horrifying child abuse, whether it be by a frustrated parent or abusive nanny or babysitter. When an individual is convicted of child abuse (or worse) in a case involving Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS), many people probably get a good feeling in their gut that justice has been served.

However, an article on the The Crime Report by Maurice Possley suggests that soon-to-be-released research may be calling into question thousands of convictions based on diagnoses of SBS. Possley suggests this is particularly alarming because this is one of the areas of criminal law where a diagnosis can be the "basis for the prosecution". To put it a different way, without a diagnosis of SBS, convictions in these types of cases may not have been secured.

The article pointed out a case from the '90s where Audrey Edmunds, a day care provider, was charged with murder, convicted by a jury, and sentenced to 18 years in prison. In that trial, expert testimony indicated that a child had suffered "critical injuries that were the hallmarks of Shaken Baby Syndrome." The article pointed out the three key injuries that point to SBS --retinal hemorrhage, bleeding in the brain and brain swelling

However, if the new research proves accurate, a diagnosis of SBS might fail to account for other possible causes for the injuries usually attributed to SBS, such as "falls from a short height," which "can cause fatal head injuries that appear very similar to injuries routinely diagnosed as SBS." Indeed, years later, "one of the physicians that testified against Edmunds told a judge that he was no longer confident that the injuries were inflicted by Edmunds and that they could have occurred many hours before the baby was dropped off." In the end, the case against Edmunds was dropped, but a bigger question remains. Just how many others have shared her fate?

Scientific evidence can be a powerful tool for both the prosecution and for the defense in criminal cases. Science and forensic testing's ability to resolve questions of fact (sometimes to a statistical certainty) can be unmatched, with one clear example being modern DNA tests. Juries understandably may give forensic evidence and/or expert testimony greater weight in their considerations. However, forensic testing itself has had its issues, even if those might not necessarily be related to the underlying science. Hopefully, the questions surrounding the SBS diagnosis and its impact on prior convictions will be resolved soon, one way or the other.

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