Alleged crimes committed against infants and children tend to evoke strong visceral reactions from juries and the public alike – especially when the defendant is a family member or caretaker. This makes sense, because children are innocent and largely defenseless, and because adults are responsible for their care and protection.
Unfortunately, strong legal reactions to allegations of child abuse can be very harmful if they are not backed by solid evidence and grounded in sound medical science. That appears to be the case in at least some charges related to “shaken baby syndrome” (SBS). Earlier this year, a Super Court of New Jersey judge shed light on this controversial issue when he denied the prosecution’s attempts to introduce evidence of SBS in charges against a father whose infant son had suffered head trauma.
The ‘triad’ of SBS symptoms
SBS is also known as Abusive Head Trauma, and there are three commonly identified symptoms. These include: a subdural hemorrhage, brain swelling and retinal hemorrhage. When a baby shows up to an emergency room with these symptoms, it is likely that medical professionals will suspect or accuse an adult of intentionally inflicting those injuries. Typically, the last person to care for the infant will be accused of causing SBS, even if they have no history of violence and there are no other injuries to indicate physical abuse.
The science does not support many SBS claims
In his ruling, the judge noted that “no study has ever validated the hypothesis that shaking a child can cause the triad of symptoms associated with” Abusive Head Trauma. Moreover, there are studies providing other explanations for such symptoms, including seemingly insignificant falls a child experienced days or weeks before they were rushed to the hospital. The judged challenged SBS as “junk science,” and that it is “an assumption packaged as a medical diagnosis.”
Other cases challenging SBS
In the past six years or so, there have been several cases in New Jersey in which judges have been skeptical or dismissive of SBS accusations, leading to acquittal or inspiring attempts to overturn convictions.
It is heartbreaking to think that a parent might lose their child to an unforeseen accident, then to have their grief multiplied by being charged with the abuse or murder of that child. Hopefully, new scrutiny of SBS accusations will greatly reduce or eliminate that injustice.
If you are facing criminal charges (related to any crime), cases like these serve as an important reminder that evidence can and should be challenged. An experienced attorney may be able to help you show that evidence is not as strong as people assume, and that some “science” is far from settled.