News 05.21.14

Doubts Cast in Wisconsin Shaken Baby Case

Five years after a Wisconsin woman was convicted in the 2007 death of a 4-month-old in her care, experts have recanted their testimony and now have doubts about what caused the infant’s death. Jennifer Hancock was convicted of abusing Lincoln Wilber and is serving a 13 year sentence. Hancock testified that before she discovered the unresponsive infant, she found a 3-year-old girl who weighed nearly 40 pounds lifting herself off Wilber after apparently falling on him. At the 2009 trial, however, four experts said that Wilber died as a result of abuse and that Hancock was the only suspect. But there was an absence of external evidence.

 

The

Wisconsin State Journal

reported that new theories ranging from a heart virus to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) to a blood clot have emerged. The

Medill Justice Project

at Northwestern University conducted interviews with the experts that raised questions about the cause of death. One expert, Dr. Julie Mack, a radiologist that viewed Wimber’s MRIs and CT scans believes the infant’s brain bleeding began at least 24 hours before he was under Hancock’s care. Another expert, Dr. George R. Nichols II, is skeptical that a child can die without any sign of external trauma, but when questioned by Medill students, he said he couldn’t say for sure if Hancock was the cause of injury — saying that a leg fracture that was detected in the infant could have been before the baby was in her care or afterwards.

 

Dr. Michael Stier, the forensic pathologist who conducted the autopsy and testified for the prosecution, also raised questions about the timing of the injuries and said he is no longer certain that the infant was abused. According to the

State Journal

, Dr. Stier said, “The science here is not as accurate as some would believe it to be.” Stier’s new theory is that Wilbur may have died of the type of SIDS.

 

Dane County Assistant District Attorney Thomas Fallon, who is on the advisory board for the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome, declined to comment on the new theories, citing ethical obligations not to engage in pretrial publicity in a case that is being appealed. The center reported that more than 300 babies die in the United States each year from shaking.

 

The group’s spokesman, Ryan L. Steinbeigle, feels strongly that the jury got it right the first time. He said: “While the idea of a flawed diagnosis putting innocent people behind bars may be effective in selling newspapers . . . it is not based on any real science or evidence and actually does more harm by misleading the public to believe that shaking a baby is a safe care giving behavior,” he said.

 

The

State Journal

writes that Dr. Ronald Uscinski, a neurosurgeon who teaches at Georgetown University and The George Washington University, “speculated that the weight of the toddler falling on Lincoln would cause enough impact to cause rebleeding in his brain.”

 

According to forensic neuropathologist Dr. Jan Leestma, 20 percent to 30 percent of births result in some kind of trauma, and a small percentage of those birth traumas could result in a subdural hematoma that might take a month or two to show up. Leestma said a trip to the hospital nine days before Wilber was unresponsive could have been a sign of that. His parents took him to the hospital because he was projectile vomiting, acting fussy and had a noticeably decreased appetite. He was treated for gastro-esophageal reflux, but Leestma said this could have been a symptom of a chronic brain injury.

 


Wisconsin Innocence Project

Co-Director Carrie Sperling is preparing an appeal of Hancock’s case. Sperling told the

State Journal

that the myriad theories of Lincoln’s cause of death and advances in medical understanding about head injuries “confirms everything we (innocence attorneys) know about these kinds of cases and why they should be reviewed.”

 


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