The following editorial was published by the Chicago Sun-Times on September 1, 2012.
Too often, cutting-edge scientific theories send people to prison only to turn out to have more holes than Swiss cheese.
here was the medical theory — later discredited — that helped land about 30 adults from Bakersfield, Calif., in prison for sexually abusing children in the 1990s.
There were the arson theories that helped send Cameron Todd Willingham to a Texas execution chamber in 2004, only to be rejected later by other experts relying on advances in fire science.
There was the theory of identifiable unique shoe-wear patterns that helped send at least eight men to prison for life in the United States and Canada in the 1980s before scientists concluded the whole idea was fiction.
So when a case involving the theory of “shaken-baby syndrome” returns to the DuPage County courthouse this fall, the theory should be put under a microscope. Only proof that puts all doubt to rest will suffice.
A decade or so ago, many medical experts thought that a “triad” of symptoms in a dead infant — bleeding behind the retinas, brain swelling and bleeding on the brain surface — could be caused only by major trauma, such as a car wreck, or by violent shaking.
If those symptoms were found in a baby or young child who died — and no major trauma occurred — it followed that the baby died by violent shaking at the hands of a caregiver. No witness to the shaking was really necessary. Thousands of Americans have been sent to prison based on medical shaken-baby evidence.
But here’s where the doubt comes in. In the intervening years, some medical experts have traced the “triad” of symptoms to other causes. Even Norman Guthkelch, the Evanston pediatric neurosurgeon who was among the first to describe shaken-baby syndrome, has his doubts about how the diagnosis is used in court. Sometimes, he says, illness can cause the same symptoms.
Other scientists say the symptoms could even be caused by ordinary falls.
Shaken-baby medical evidence is at the heart of the case of Pamela Jacobazzi, 57, a former Bartlett day care owner who was convicted 13 years ago of murdering a 10-month-old boy. She was sentenced to 32 years.
Jacobazzi didn’t confess, and no witness saw her shaking the child. But at the time of her trial, symptoms of shaken-baby syndrome were enough.
DuPage County State’s Attorney Robert Berlin has said prosecutors are prepared to defend the conviction at a new evidentiary hearing scheduled for November.
At the hearing, new science that wasn’t available at the time of trial will be presented, as well as pediatric records that the defense will argue show the child’s symptoms could have been caused by disease.
“The general consensus is that the medical evidence used at her trial is no longer valid,” said Bill Clutter, of the Illinois Innocence Project, which is working on behalf of Jacobazzi.
And DuPage County lawyer Terry Ekl, who defended a similar shaken-baby case in DuPage County, said authorities should be wary of basing a case largely on shaken-baby syndrome: “Everybody wants to see someone be convicted when a baby dies.”
But, he said, “I think this is an area where there are innocent people in jail who have been convicted as a result of flawed theories.”
The medical evidence in this case must be weighed carefully. If any doubt remains, this conviction must be overturned.