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The Science of Shaken Baby Syndrome

Every year in this country, hundreds of people are accused of having shaken a baby, many are even convicted.  However, expert medical testimony in the form of opinion is often used to establish that a crime occurred, that the defendant caused the infant's death by shaking, and that the shaking was sufficiently forceful to constitute depraved indifference to human life. Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS) is, in essence, a medical diagnosis of murder, one based solely on the presence of a diagnostic triad: retinal bleeding or hemorrhages, bleeding in the protective layer of the brain, and brain swelling.

New scientific research has cast doubt on the forensic significance of this triad, thereby undermining the foundations of thousands of SBS convictions.  Outside the United States, this scientific evolution has prompted systemic reevaluations of the prosecutorial paradigm– that the existence of one or all of the three equals SBS.  In contrast, our criminal justice system has failed to absorb the latest scientific knowledge.  This is beginning to change, yet the response has been halting and inconsistent.  To this day, triad-based convictions continue to be affirmed, and new prosecutions commenced, as a matter of course.

The Science Has Shifted

Several key scientifically based factors have shifted the prosecution paradigm away from the triad of retinal bleeding, bleeding in the protective layer of the brain, and brain swelling from SBS.  Fewer and fewer doctors are willing to conclude that shaking alone is the cause of the triad of conditions.

Prolonged periods of “lucidity”

In prior cases, the prosecution paradigm suggests that once shaken to the point that an infant suffers from the triad of injuries, the infant will go unconscious.  Therefore, pointing directly to the person who was in the physical care and custody of the child immediately prior.  However, new details have shown that an infant suffering from fatal head trauma may have been lucid for seventy-two hours prior to death.  Thus, the identity of the perpetrator may be drawn into question.

“Short-fall” literature

In a number of peer-reviewed articles, doctors have found that the potential impact of a short-fall scenario may be the cause of injuries, which may not appear instantly, in an infant giving rise to SBS.  Therefore, accidental injury is also a cause of the triad of injuries.  A violent shaking of an infant is no longer the only etiology or cause of SBS.

Congenital Defects

Just like rib fractures in some infants, there are also medical reasons why an infant may exhibit some of the symptoms of SBS.  For instance, a number of disorders can mimic SBS, such as congenital malformations, metabolic disorders, hematological diseases, infectious diseases and autoimmune conditions.

If you have been accused of child abuse by a hospital, a children and youth agency or the police, you must immediately seek counsel.  It’s perfectly fine not to speak to a government agent.  They are not there to help you necessarily.  They are there to protect a child and may have a short-sited view of your case.  Call an experienced attorney.