Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Shaken Baby Syndrome as a Controversy in Wrongful Conviction Cases

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Shaken Baby Syndrome as a Controversy in Wrongful Conviction Cases

Article excerpt


Shaken Baby Syndrome ("SBS") is a controversial medical diagnosis that has led to wrongful convictions. Since 2001, there have been about 2,000 cases where defendants were charged with SBS (1) and out of those, in 213 cases "charges were dropped or dismissed or convictions were overturned" when secondary analysis showed that the victim has suffered from something other than SBS. (2) One of the primary causes for misdiagnosis of SBS, which potentially leads to a wrongful conviction, is the misconception of signs and symptoms which, when present all at once, are considered to fall under the umbrella of SBS. (3) Often, when a defendant is suspected of shaking the infant to death, the medical expert checks whether the victim has the following three symptoms, also known as the "classic `triad': retinal hemorrhages (bleeding of the inside surface of the back of the eye); subdural hemorrhages (bleeding between the hard outer layer and the spongy membranes that surround the brain); and cerebral edema (brain swelling)." (4)

SBS, as a medical diagnosis, was first discovered by Norman Guthkelch, a pediatric neurosurgeon, who first discussed it in his 1971 journal article studying subdural hematomas and how they can lead to whiplash injuries. (5) This was the first medical source to talk about this diagnosis which stated that subdural hematomas can occur after repeated shaking of the infant, as opposed to "direct violence." (6) In other words, Guthkelch hints that SBS may occur from the repeated shaking of the child on separate occasions and is not a one-time incident. (7) To prove his argument, he conducted an experiment where he examined twenty-three cases of children (8) whose families were strongly suspected of child abuse and found that there is a chance that a child may undergo abuse and receive subdural hematomas, leading to SBS. (9) Although this study is based on a small sample size, it has caused a wave of a new perspectives on child abuse from forensic and legal standpoints. Even if "solid statistics are limited regarding the incidence of [SBS]" (10) its description was enough to shift public and jury perceptions of defendants suspected of causing SBS. (11) Therefore, Part II of this article identifies issues with definitions of SBS provided by an official, medical source and how they can influence the jury to pre-judge the defendant before evidence hearing. Part III will discuss how the court's over-reliability on forensic expert testimony leads the jury to have a negative perception of defendants as "baby-killers." Part IV will utilize case analysis and discuss the lack of clarity on who is an expert that can best determine whether the victim has suffered from SBS or not. Part V will discuss the necessary recommendations to be considered to eliminate wrongful conviction based on controversial SBS.


Due to a growing concern of SBS, health departments began acknowledging it as a nationwide issue. (12) For instance, the New York State Department of Health states that "[a]n average of 33 children under the age of 4 years old is hospitalized each year for SBS." (13) However, "due to various terms used in medical and hospital records as well as under-recognition of [SBS]" there is a lack of a concrete definition, along with a concise list of signs and symptoms that medical experts, judges, and lawyers can rely upon to make accurate decisions. (14)

Among the issues with the definitions for SBS is that it contains signs and symptoms that are known to other diagnoses as well. (15) Other studies have shown that medical professionals may misdiagnose SBS for other diagnoses such as meningitis or encephalitis and therefore lead to an under-report of child abuse. (16) However, in the cases being analyzed for this article, medical professionals have incorrectly claimed that these were cases of SBS and child abuse, when in fact they were not. A majority of cases which have been wrongfully identified as SBS are actually cases of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome ("SIDS") and Venous Sinus Thrombosis. …

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