You read about the striking reversal in the latest Boston nanny case and you wonder: How does this happen? How could a medical examiner first say a baby died of “complications from blunt force head injuries” and then, two years after the baby’s Irish nanny is accused of murder, decide that the cause of death is “undetermined”?
The medical examiner’s report has not been publicly released, but the Middlesex district attorney’s press release does cite a major review process that included “expert witness reports from the defense and prosecution, additional transcripts of police interviews, transcripts of grand jury testimony, additional medical records, DCF reports, and additional laboratory testing.”
On Radio Boston today, co-host Anthony Brooks spoke with Dr. Robert Sege, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ committee on child abuse and neglect, and vice president at Health Resources in Action, a public health policy organization. Here’s an excerpt of that conversation, lightly edited:
Anthony Brooks: This is the second time in a year that the Massachusetts medical examiner has reversed its finding in a baby’s death, and we’ve been reading that in the United States, 16 convictions have been overturned since 2001, including three last year. So does this raise questions about the diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome? What are your thoughts on that?
Dr. Robert Sege: To me, it doesn’t raise the question at all. If you think about it, there are people who are falsely accused of murder, robberies, all kinds of things and the justice system is not perfect. So in a situation where we have hundreds and perhaps a thousand infants a year who experience shaken baby syndrome, the fact that 16 convictions over a multi-year period were overturned lets me know that the justice system worked, and that people get a fair shot at getting their story told…
I’m very happy that we live in a country with a judicial system that looks at things skeptically and tries to make sure that justice is done. It doesn’t change anything about whether or not shaken baby syndrome or abusive head trauma exists. Sadly, it does.
I want to read you one quote from Gregory Davis, the chief medical examiner in Birmingham, Alabama, and board chair of the National Association of Medical Examiners. He told the Washington Post:
“You can’t necessarily prove [shaken baby syndrome] one way or another … Neither side can point to compelling evidence and say, ‘We’re right and the other side is wrong.’ So instead, it goes to trial.”
Do you disagree with that?
I actually do, and I think part of the issue is that many cases of abusive head trauma never make it to trial, sometimes because the police and the prosecutors can’t figure out who the perpetrator was, but often — and I’ve certainly seen this — because someone confesses. It’s a very sad situation, but frequently a person just reaches the end of their rope. They’re frustrated, the infant won’t shut up, they don’t mean to cause harm or death but they just can’t stand it anymore. Continue reading