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Doubts Grow in Shaken Baby Syndrome Science

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Posted: July 2, 2013   2:50 PM

A two-part series in the Democrat and Chronicle takes a close look at shaken baby syndrome cases and the science behind them, paying particular attention to two New York convictions in which shaken baby syndrome diagnoses have been challenged.
René Bailey was convicted in Monroe County in 2002 of murder when a 2½-year-old child in her daycare suffered a fatal head injury. Barbara Hershey, an Ontario County grandmother was convicted in 2007 of manslaughter in the death of her four-month-old stepgrandson. Both convictions were based on medical testimony about the classic triad of symptoms that doctors say proved the child had suffered abuse by shaking.
Shaken baby syndrome convictions are based on the premise that shaking a baby can result in brain damage or death, even in the absence of other physical indications of abuse such as broken bones or bruising. According to the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome, some 1300 children suffer or die from the syndrome every year.
Although many physicians and prosecutors remain confident in their judgments, a growing number of critics argue that the syndrome has been overly diagnosed and that innocent people have been sent to prison as a result. Bailey’s attorney Adele Bernhard spoke with the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle:

“My feeling in René’s case is the verdict is based on science which is invalid,” said Bernhard, whose challenge also asserts Bailey received ineffective legal representation at her trial.

A Monroe County Court Judge will decide over the next two months whether a hearing is warranted in Bailey’s case.
Barbara Hershey was released in 2011 on time served when appellate judges reduced her sentence. She has not been officially exonerated, as she and her attorneys, William Easton and Brian Shiffrin, had hoped. They believe that the scientific evidence in her case should have been more carefully scrutinized and argue that the baby had preexisting medical problems.

“The thing that really is troubling in the shaken-baby context is ... the prosecution rests solely on the science,” said University of Wisconsin law professor Keith Findley, who has written extensively about shaken-baby syndrome. “In the classic ‘triad-based’ shaken-baby case, the medical opinion and the so-called scientific evidence is the whole case.”

Read Part I: Shaken-baby triad still rules in New York courts
Read Part II.

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