A babysitter in southern Alabama has been accused of shaking a newborn girl entrusted to her care, and has been charged with Class A felony child abuse, after the child suffered serious injury.
Our Birmingham criminal defense lawyers know that cases like this are wrought with highly-charged emotions and there is sometimes a tendency to overreact, rather than get to the root of the child’s condition.
This is not to insinuate that shaken baby syndrome doesn’t occur or that caretakers don’t react violently in a moment of frustration with a crying infant.
But sometimes, there is more than one explanation as to why the child may be suffering from the ailments that have been reported.
Over the last decade, there were scourges of cases involving Shaken Baby Syndrome, and many, many people were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms as a result. But in the last several years, the pediatric neurosurgeon credited with first identifying the condition in young children has become a vocal opponent with regard to the way the condition has been applied in criminal cases.
Specifically, 97-year-old Dr. Norman Guthkelch has come forth in recent years to say that he is concerned it is being used as a go-to diagnosis in cases where an infant or young child dies or has suffered an injury. The problem is that investigators are failing to explore other possible causes.
For example, a case out of Arizona involved a father who was sentenced to a life sentence in prison for shaking his 5-month-old son, killing him. He spent 10 years behind bars. But as it turned out, a month before the child died, he had been treated at a local hospital for uncontrolled seizures. The baby had also spent a significant amount of time in the NICU following a very difficult birth.
In reviewing that case, Dr. Guthkelch reported that he believed the boy died from natural causes. As he put it: “I wouldn’t hang a cat on the evidence of shaking, as presented.”
An investigation conducted jointly by NPR, ProPublica and PBS Frontline analyzed numerous shaken baby convictions made in recent years, many of which were later resulted in acquittals, dropped charges or exonerations.
In a lot of these cases, there was a pattern: Sketchy testimony, questionable autopsies and serious disputes over medical evidence that was not carefully weighed by investigators.
Part of the problem is that some of the symptoms of shaken baby syndrome mirror so many other conditions. A report from the Mayo Clinic indicates that shaken baby symptoms include:
- Extreme irritability;
- Difficulty remaining awake;
- Poor eating;
- Breathing problems;
- Skin that is pale or bluish;
The condition is serious enough that it can and sometimes does lead to death. However, these symptoms can and often do apply to other conditions – and those might have nothing to do with abuse or criminal activity.
Of course, an infant is unable to testify, so it’s often the word of the defendant versus the medical reports. The latter is not always as full-proof as one might hope.
In the case out of Fort Mitchell, the suspect is a mother of four, expecting her fifth, who was babysitting another woman’s 2-month-old.
The babysitter reportedly called the child’s mother shortly after noon to say that her child was not responsive. The baby’s mother, an emergency medical technician, responded by ambulance to the home.
The child suffered bleeding on the brain and behind the eyes. The suspect is accused of shaking the child and forcefully throwing the child down onto a couch because it would not stop crying.