Legal teams that seek to free wrongly convicted defendants from prison frequently turn to expert witnesses to help them prove a client’s innocence. New evidence provided by DNA experts has resulted in 330 post-conviction exonerations in the United States. Many of those innocent defendants were facing the death penalty.
As ExpertPages has reported, expert testimony is also persuading courts to reopen cases in which convictions were based on evidence of “shaken baby syndrome.” Advances in medical science have persuaded experts that many so-called “shaken baby” injuries that were once thought to have been inflicted as an act of abuse could have resulted from natural causes.
New research may cause forensic investigators to rethink their conclusions — and may lead to a new wave of exonerations —in child abuse cases involving skull fractures. In the past, experts testified that multiple fractures were indicative of child abuse. New research is now casting doubt upon that testimony. In the near future, experts may be called upon to help free wrongly convicted prisoners who are serving child abuse (or murder) sentences in cases where children experienced multiple skull fractures.
Skull Fracture Research at MSU
Until now, when doctors and medical examiners observed multiple fractures on a child’s skull, they regarded it as a “red flag” for child abuse — at least in the absence of an accident that produced multiple impacts with the child’s head. Researchers at Michigan State University are now questioning that conclusion. Their research may change the way forensic scientists interpret skull fractures when they are deciding whether a child was or was not the victim of child abuse.
After spending years smashing infant pig skulls and examining the results, the MSU research team has concluded that a single impact can cause multiple, unconnected fractures. That finding contradicts the conventional view that unconnected fractures can only be produced by separate impacts.
The research brought together Todd Fenton, the director of the MSU Forensic Anthropology Laboratory, and Roger Haut, the director of MSU’s Orthopaedic Biomechanics Laboratories. Fenton thought that merging the expertise of a forensic anthropologist and a biomechanical engineer could fill a gap in existing science. Their ultimate goal is to create a map of skull fractures that could be used to prove or disprove child abuse accusations.
Implications for Skull Fracture Child Abuse Cases
The research may lead to exonerations of individuals who have been convicted of child abuse on the strength of mistaken testimony that a single, accidental blow to the head could not produce multiple fractures. “Knowing what we know now,” Fenton told the Lansing State Journal, “our fear is that there may be people that have been wrongly accused of child abuse based upon those protocols.”
The MSU team’s findings may be particularly significant in cases where a defendant testified that a child was dropped accidentally or fell out of bed. In the past, juries may have rejected the defendant’s testimony simply because prosecution experts testified that a single fall would not produce multiple fractures.
Fortunately, honest scientists are willing to change their minds when advances in scientific research demonstrate that conclusions they drew in the past may be mistaken. Just as experts have recanted their testimony in shaken baby cases, experts who testified that multiple skull fractures could not result from a single impact may be asked to rethink their opinions by post-conviction attorneys working to free wrongly convicted defendants in child abuse cases.
Meeting Future Challenges
Fenton notes that determining the cause of a pediatric death is often challenging. “And often times,” Fenton says, “when those cases go to trial, expert witnesses line up on both sides and it can become really contentious.”
Before the MSU scientists began their work, there was little sound science upon which to base an interpretation of cranial fractures. The MSU team is working with computer scientists to build a skull fracture database that they have termed the Fracture Printing Interface. They hope that their database will give forensic experts a foundation for deciding whether a skull fracture pattern was or not the result of child abuse.