The tragic death of 4-month-old Lincoln Wilber in 2007, initially determined to be the result of child abuse, is getting a second look by a handful of nationally renowned medical expert witnesses. At the behest of Northwestern University’s Medill Justice Project, experts in abusive head trauma, pathology, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) reviewed the facts of the incident and cast doubt on the criminal prosecution of Lincoln’s care-giver.
Lincoln’s care provider, Jennifer Hancock, was tried and convicted of causing death by child abuse, in large part with the assistance of four medical experts specializing in shaken baby syndrome and head trauma. Hancock, who is serving 13 years in prison for the crime, was alone with Lincoln for 5 ½ hours prior to his death and convicted on the strength of a head and leg fracture that experts believed were indicative of abusive behavior.
Medical Experts Skeptical over Cause of Infant’s Death
Medical experts approached by the Medill Project examined Lincoln’s autopsy report, MRIs, CT scans, and medical history before providing several alternative theories to the infant’s death:
- Lincoln had a blood clot: Dr. Michael Laposata, the head pathologist at Vanderbilt University Hospital and an expert in blood clotting, examined Lincoln’s case and said that because his mother had a history of Lupus and blood clotting, it is likely that Lincoln had similar issues. Dr. Laposata pointed out that a blood clot could lead to higher blood pressure, rupturing vessels and causing a subdural hematoma.
- Lincoln had an existing brain injury: Dr. Ronald Uscinski, a neurosurgeon who also teaches at Georgetown University, served as an expert witness for Jennifer Hancock during her trial. He testified, and still believes, that Lincoln’s birth caused a subdural hematoma – brain bleed – that made him susceptible to the problem arising again. Dr. Jan Leestma, who has testified for defendants in infant death cases, reaffirmed the possibility by pointing out that Lincoln’s behavior and recent illness could have been the result of a chronic brain injury that could have become aggravated before the boy was alone with Hancock.
- Lincoln’s Death the Result of SIDS: Dr. Michael Stier, the forensic pathologist who conducted Lincoln’s autopsy and declined to testify for the defense at trial, has rethought the case after further examination. Upon looking closer and Lincoln’s injuries and the timeline of his brain bleed, Dr. Stier believes that the death is surrounded by uncertainty and could have been the result of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome – an unexplainable cause of infant death.
Key to the medical experts’ analysis of Lincoln’s death is the timing of his brain bleed and his physical injuries. Dr. Julie Mack, a radiologist in Hershey, Pa. and experienced defense expert witness, examined Lincoln’s medical charts and concluded that his brain began bleeding 24 hours prior to his death – supporting any of the above theories. Dr. Mack was unconvinced by Lincoln’s leg and skull injuries, claiming that the injuries likely occurred during attempts to revive him.
Expert Witness Investigation Used in Appeal of Conviction
It is unsure if reexamining Lincoln’s death will have any impact on the criminal conviction of Jennifer Hancock, who is not involved in the Medill Justice Project’s investigation. The medical expert witnesses offering their opinion have only been able to conclude that Lincoln’s death was suspicious, and not necessarily the cause of head trauma or shaken baby syndrome, but none were able to definitively point to an alternative theory. Attorney Carrie Sperling, co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, is preparing an appeal for Hancock and will rely on the several alternative theories to cast doubt on Hancock’s guilt – hoping to overturn her conviction.
Even if the expert investigation into Lincoln’s death is too vague to contribute to Hancock’s defense, the case is worth noting. Medical expert witnesses are critical to understanding the tragic deaths of infants, and criminal or civil cases in the future will benefit from the type of analysis made available by the experts who reevaluated the cause of Lincoln’s death.