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Michigan Criminal Trials Highlight Expert Dispute over Shaken Baby Syndrome

Michigan Criminal Trials Highlight Expert Dispute over Shaken Baby Syndrome

Two Michigan men accused of killing infants have consulted expert witnesses to dispute allegations that the children died from Shaken Baby Syndrome. The cases, which have gone to trial, will serve as a critique of Shaken Baby Syndrome with both sides presenting experts to debate not only whether or not the condition explains the deaths, but whether or not it is valid given inconsistent results from medical science.

Michigan Men Accused in Shaken Baby Deaths

Leo Ackley and Anthony Ball have both been charged with felony murder and first-degree child abuse for deaths of their girlfriends’ young daughters. Prosecutors filing charges against both men have argued that there is sufficient evidence in each case to convict them based on Shaken Baby Syndrome — a medical condition caused by violent shaking which has been linked to death in infants and toddlers. According to police investigators and prosecutors, both children showed signs of being shaken and were home alone with the defendants at the time they suffered their injuries. Both men have argued that the children suffered a separate fatal injury, and claim that they did not take violent action against the children.

Ackley was found guilty on both charges after a 2012 trial, however, his conviction was overturned in 2015 when the Michigan Supreme Court found that his attorney erred by not calling a medical expert witness to dispute the child’s cause of death. Both Ackley and Ball recently asked the Michigan Supreme Court to delay their murder trials while experts dispute the validity of using evidence of injuries commonly associated with Shaken Baby Syndrome against them. However, the Court denied the request and allowed both trials to proceed.

Last week, Ackley was convicted a second time and will be sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole during a sentencing hearing later this month. His attorneys have already promised an appeal. Ball’s trial is still ongoing, and will likely come to a conclusion within a week or two.

Experts Debate Shaken Baby Abuse during Michigan Trial

During his second trial, Ackley’s attorneys called several medical expert witnesses to offer pointed attacks on the conclusions by prosecution doctors who contend the victim’s injuries were the result of child abuse. According to defense expert witness Dr. Ljabisa Dragovic, the Oakland County Medical Examiner, the toddler could have been injured by a fall off a trampoline which occurred a few days before her death. Dr. Dragovic disputed the prosecution’s conclusion that child abuse caused the injuries, telling jurors that the injuries suffered were not conclusively linked to shaken baby syndrome.

Prosecutors in the case countered that the case was not specifically about shaken baby syndrome, but was instead focused on abusive head trauma and that their medical experts provided sufficient evidence connecting the defendant to the victim’s injuries. According to the prosecution’s medical expert, the brain samples of the toddler victim indicated she suffered from a head injury caused by significant force suffered while she was alone with the defendant. Further, according to the prosecution expert, the child showed other troubling signs, including bruising consistent with child abuse and a change in eating behavior.

Ultimately the jury was convinced that Ackley caused the injuries to the child victim and found him guilty for a second time, however, the lingering questions about the use of evidence of shaken baby syndrome — even if it is termed abusive head trauma — serves as a reminder that experts across the country are disputing a condition which has long been accepted in American criminal trials.

Michigan Cases Highlight Criticism of Shaken Baby Syndrome

Medical expert witnesses who specialize in child abuse and child injuries have divided on the existence of shaken baby syndrome. According to the Washington Post, there have been almost 2,000 cases in the United States which were built on evidence of abusive shaking. Of those cases, 213 resulted in acquittals or overturned convictions due to misdiagnosed shaken baby syndrome, leading many experts in the medical community to question the validity of the diagnosis. Research designed to challenge the conclusions of shaken baby syndrome has intensified, and legal agencies have received funding to challenge convictions based on the diagnosis.

On the other side, several medical experts maintain that shaken baby syndrome, which they argue should be called abusive head trauma instead, is a real medical condition which most physicians support. Proponents of shaken baby syndrome have criticized reports which call the condition into question, and argue that medical science supports a connection between shaking and specific head trauma injuries that prosecutors can use to earn abuse and murder convictions. Despite support for shaken baby syndrome causing abusive head trauma, experts continue to question its validity and use during criminal trials.