A Look at Exonerations in Shaken Baby Syndrome Cases

Drayton Witt of Tucson spent 10 years behind bars after being convicted in 2002 of shaking to death his girlfriend's 4-month old son, Steven Holt. 

And he likely would have served 10 more years for the murder of Steven had the Arizona Justice Project — along with retired British pediatric neurosurgeon Norman Guthkelch and several other medical experts — not stepped in to re-examine his case.

Guthkelch is credited with developing the medical theory in 1971 that laid the groundwork for what later would became known as shaken baby syndrome. He apparently was dismayed by what he read in 2008 when he was asked to review Witt's case. 

See also: Assumptions About Shaken Baby Syndrome Now Are Being Questioned

Witt was accused of violently shaking the baby in his care with such force that the infant's brain slammed around his skull, causing it to bleed and swell and the child to hemorrhage though his eyes. 

Medical professionals pointed to the triad of symptoms in the deceased child as a clear case of shaken baby syndrome, or non-accidental head trauma. The Justice Project's strategy was, in part, to point to new medical evidence that demonstrates that other conditions can mimic symptoms long considered to be present only in cases of abuse.

In a position paper, Guthkelch acknowledged that aspects of SBS were now "open to serious doubt" and that a diagnosis of SBS as cause of death in Witt's case was "inappropriate," according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and Northwestern University School of Law's Center on Wrongful Convictions.

Similarly, forensic pathologist John Plunkett cites in one of his studies that even short falls have caused those exact symptoms on young children. 

One of the findings in Plunkett's study, "Fatal Pediatric Head Injuries Caused By Short Distance Falls," was that "a fall from less than 10 feet in an infant or child may cause fatal head injury and may not cause immediate symptoms."

He wrote that a "history from the caretaker that the child may have fallen cannot be dismissed."

Among the 19 cases he reviewed, Plunkett cited one in which a nearly 2-year-old girl was playing on a plastic gym set with her older brother while in their grandmother's care. 

Grandma was videotaping the children at play — eliminating suspicion that the child was intentionally harmed — and captured on video the little girl losing her balance from atop a 28-inch ladder and slamming her head into a carpeted concrete floor. 

The girl eventually succumbed to her injuries, which included a large subdural hematoma — bleeding in the brain seen in suspected victims of shaken baby syndrome. 

Some medical experts say that nagging skepticism about the validity of abusive or non-accidental head trauma is not based on scientific findings or valid research, but rather is promulgated by criminal defense attorneys, their expert witnesses, and organizations like the Arizona Justice Project seeking to exonerate convicted parents and caregivers. 

But the doubts raised have been persuasive enough to overturn convictions and commute lengthy prison sentences like Witt's.

Witt's ordeal started on the evening of June 1, 2000, when he was 18 years old. He had just dropped off his girlfriend, Maria Holt, at a Phoenix restaurant where she worked as a waitress. Her son, Steven, was asleep in the car seat.

The infant had been experiencing seizures after being prescribed a medication for flu-like symptoms, the Registry notes. When Witt noticed the baby was having trouble breathing and appeared to be seizing, he returned to the restaurant, picked up Holt, and drove to a nearby hospital. 

The baby was revived, but eventually died after being taken off life support.

A 10-day trial ended with a 20-year sentence. 

In 2008, the Arizona Justice Project agreed to take a look at Witt's case, and had several experts, including Guthkelch, review the medical and court records. 

Dr. A. L. Mosley, the physician from the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office who performed Steven's autopsy in 2000, signed a sworn affidavit saying that based upon his review of recent literature, on the significant developments in the medical and scientific community's understanding of SBS and several of the conditions that mimic its symptoms, he determined he could not stand by his "previous conclusion and trial testimony that Steven Witt's death was a homicide," according to the Registry.

Guthkelch was dismayed at how his decades-old findings were "overused in the past 40 years," according to a story in the Arizona Republic

Guthkelch's testimony that there was insufficient evidence to have convicted Witt helped set him free. After further examination, doctors acknowledged the baby had, among other problems, an obstructed vein leading to his brain — a detail omitted from the medical examiner's report. 

As a result of organizations such as the Arizona Justice Project and the Wisconsin Innocence Project pushing against a diagnosis ingrained in the medical and legal community, parents and caregivers are getting second chances. 

"You may, in your heart, believe that this is a case of shaking," Guthkelch said during a 2011 interview during an NPR series on shaken baby syndrome. "But you've got to prove it just as carefully as any other case."

Consider that some medical experts now believe that a blood clot in the brain of 3-month-old Isabella led to her death in 2003, not violent shaking by Jennifer Del Prete, the Chicago woman who was babysitting her when she became unresponsive and suffered what appeared to be a severe brain injury.

Del Prete, who has already served 7.5 years of a 20-year prison sentence for the death of the child, is contesting her conviction with the help of students at Northwestern University. 

Professor Alec Klein, who runs the Medill Justice Project at Northwestern University, told a Chicago news outlet that he and his students are "trying to pursue these cases because we think there may be a number of people behind bars who shouldn't be there."

Guthkelch told the Fox affiliate in Chicago that "what needed to be sorted out was the fact that these fatal cases were being regarded as due to shaking, simply because no one else could think of any explanation."

Similar cases labeled as non-accidental head trauma, or abusive head trauma, are coming under scrutiny because it appears that doctors did not look past their suspicions that the child was violently shaken, and did not consider the child's medical history or that some other medical condition could be responsible for the death. 

Charges also eventually were dropped against Lisa Kathleen Randall, a Peoria daycare owner accused in 2007 of shaking to death 4-month-old Dillon Uutela, New Times reported in July 2010.

Audrey Edmunds, a Wisconsin babysitter, was freed after 11 years in prison after being convicted of reckless homicide in the death of 7-month-old Natalie. 

An article in the American Bar Association Journal reports that experts testified in Edmunds' trial that the child's internal injuries were "the equivalent of a fall from a two- or three-story building, or a car crash at 25 to 30 miles per hour." 

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals reversed her conviction. It stated that a "significant and legitimate debate" had developed in the medical community in the previous 10 years as to whether babies can be fatally injured through shaking alone, whether a baby with a traumatic head injury can experience a significant lucid interval prior to death, and whether other causes may mimic the symptoms traditionally associated with shaken baby syndrome. 

"The newly discovered evidence in this case shows that there has been a shift in mainstream medical opinion since the time of Edmunds' trial as to the causes of the types of trauma Natalie exhibited," the court wrote, noting that the debate reflects "a fierce disagreement between forensic pathologists who now question whether the symptoms Natalie displayed indicate intentional head trauma, and pediatricians who largely adhere to the science as presented at Edmunds' trial."

Robert Huntington, a pathologist who testified in Edmunds' case, told the court in 2007, more than a decade after his original testimony, that he longer could be sure that the baby had been shaken.