A growing number of experts are challenging the existence and symptoms of Shaken Baby Syndrome/Abusive Head Trauma — a medical diagnosis that has sent many people to prison over the years. This is leading to a rise in appeals and overturned convictions.
In the early 1970s, pediatric neurosurgeon A. Norman Guthkelch first hypothesized Shaken Baby Syndrome/Abusive Head Trauma as a way to explain infants who had bleeding on the brain but showed no external signs of trauma.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, pediatricians published numerous studies on Shaken Baby Syndrome, finding that it could be diagnosed through three distinct symptoms: subdural or subarachnoid hemorrhages (bleeding on the brain), cerebral edema (brain swelling), and retinal hemorrhaging (bleeding in the eye). By the mid to late 1990s, Shaken Baby Syndrome was a widely accepted medical diagnosis.
Pediatricians and researchers hypothesized that caregivers would become frustrated with a baby’s crying, then pick up the child and shake him or her back and forth. This motion would cause the brain and retina to bleed, brain swelling, and then death.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has released numerous consensus statements on Shaken Baby Syndrome/Abusive Head Trauma over the years. It advised, “While physical abuse has in the past been a diagnosis of exclusion, data regarding the nature and frequency of head trauma consistently support a medical presumption of child abuse when a child younger than 1 year of age has intracranial injury.” It has also advised that short falls are incapable of producing the same symptoms.
Dr. Michael Baxter, a Tulsa child abuse pediatrician, assistant professor of pediatrics at University of Oklahoma in School of Community Medicine in Tulsa and medical director of the Children’s Advocacy Center, has said that, “There’s been multiple consensus statements done — Abusive Head Trauma is an accepted medical diagnosis.” On average, Dr. Baxter sees between six and eight cases of Abusive Head Trauma per year and two to three cases involving a death.
Questions Regarding Legitimacy
However, a growing number of experts has begun to question the legitimacy of Shaken Baby Syndrome/Abusive Head Trauma diagnosis. These experts have offered other explanations to explain the symptoms that were previously found to be only attributable to Shaken Baby Syndrome/Abusive Head Trauma.
Dr. John Plunkett, a forensic pathologist who initially supported the theory, published a paper showing that retinal hemorrhaging was present in four out of six children whose eyes were examined after people witnessed them suffering short falls.
As opposition to the Shaken Baby Syndrome/Abusive Head Trauma diagnosis rises, so does the number of appeals for those who have been convicted of this offense.
Andrea Miller, legal director of the Oklahoma Innocence Project, has said that child abuse pediatricians who testify in Shaken Baby cases often make claims for which there is no scientific backing. She said, “You often hear in the prosecution of these cases that a head injury like this could only be caused in a car accident going 70 miles per hour or a drop from a 20-story building — all of which is unprovable because you can’t subject a 2-month-old to any of those circumstances.”
In recent years, the Oklahoma Innocence Project has taken up multiple shaken baby case appeals. There have been several recent shaken baby cases nationwide that have been overturned on appeal, including at least five cases in Oklahoma and one death penalty case in Texas.