Criminal Justice

"Shaken Baby Syndrome:" All Shook Up?

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Many forensics experts have been raising questions about so-called "shaken baby syndrome" for years.  Their concerns only intensified after the term entered the pop culture lexicon after the Louise Woodward trial in 1997. That trial sparked an increase in diagnoses around the country, raising concerns that parents and caretakers of children who tragically died in falls or accidents were wrongly being prosecuted for manslaughter—or worse.

Critics of the diagnosis are now starting to make some noise and, more importantly, they're gaining traction in courtrooms.

I'm working on a story for the magazine that's tangentially related to all of this; there are at least two men currently on death row in Mississippi due in part to questionable shaken-baby diagnoses.

Given the sharp divide among forensic pathologists over the validity of the diagnosis, it seems that at the very least, courts should require more evidence of abuse than merely the conventional signs of shaken baby syndrome in order to allow a conviction.

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  1. Thank goodness!

    I prefer my babies shaken, not stirred.

  2. my cousin is in jail on a 2nd degree murder rap. the kid he was watching fell and hit her head. he, stupidly, shook her to try and get her to come around, since she was making moaning noises. she died a few days later. he became victim to a “shaken baby” scare that was sweeping maryland at that time. he even made the front page of the baltimore sun. all his conviction did was to increase the tragedy.

  3. This is one of those impossible issues with no real right answer. The accused in both an abuse-related murder and an accidental death will both claim that “It was an accident”. Which side do you err on?

    That’s not to say that there isn’t a tendency to treat all accidents as manslaughter from those whose believe that “there are no accidents, only negligence”. I’m just not sure how far you go to counter that tendency.

  4. My son was born in Pennsylvania, where state law requires the parents to either A) sign a pledge not to shake their babies or B) acknowledge that they read the pledge, but declined to sign it. I asked the maternity nurse if I could still shake my baby outside of Pennsylvania. The nurse didn’t see the humor in this.

  5. What happens if you don’t sign? Do they keep the baby?

  6. thank you very nice topic, thanks 🙂

  7. Wait a minute … false confessions are the #2 cause of false convictions?!

  8. I had no idea there was any controversy in this. Guess I need to get out more.

  9. I was going to say, “You want fries with that shake?” but that would be callous.

  10. Wait a minute … false confessions are the #2 cause of false convictions?!

    Are you surprised that there are that many false confessions? Or that it’s only the #2 cause?

  11. The accused in both an abuse-related murder and an accidental death will both claim that “It was an accident”. Which side do you err on?

    David, at the criminal trial, I err on the side of “innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” You?

  12. Yeah. I guess I AM surprised there are that many false confessions.

  13. I’m very unsurprised by the false confessions number.

    A passing examination of game theory associated with the plea bargain system would show you that the system encourages false confessions to a staggering degree.

    I’m stupefied that so many ethicists try to base theories of justice on game theory, when our most stark example of the application of game theory to the real world is rife with injustice [or perhaps one should say “when the most stark example of the application of the theory can be shown to equally encourage just and unjust outcomes”].

  14. Well, shake it up, baby, now, (shake it up, baby)

    You know you twist your little girl, (twist, little girl)

  15. David, at the criminal trial, I err on the side of “innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” You?

    The same. I’m just not sure what constitutes reasonable doubt in these cases.

  16. I had no idea there was any controversy in this.

    Oh, it’s worse than you think. Google for “shaken baby vaccine” (no quotes) and you’ll find the anti-vaccination crowd claiming that the symptoms of shaken baby syndrome are really caused by the preservatives in pediatric vaccines.

    Crazy people will latch onto any excuse for their madness.

  17. What happens if you don’t sign? Do they keep the baby?

    I wasn’t going to risk finding out. The maternity nurses seemd to think that this form was really important.

  18. Man, next thing they’ll be saying dingos didn’t eat the baby.

  19. Things other patrons at restaurants don’t like to hear: “If you don’t shake that baby, it’ll never stop crying.”

  20. Shaking a baby won’t kill them, take my word for it.

  21. Ian Hacking had an article on “child abuse” and how it came to be and morphed into child sexual abuse, from not even existing until the 60s, in Critical Inquiry, ummm….(googles) Here it is, “The Making and Moulding of Child Abuse” _Critical Inquiry_ 17:2 Winter 1991

    Probably well ensconced by now in one of his books as a chapter.

  22. This is one of those impossible issues with no real right answer. The accused in both an abuse-related murder and an accidental death will both claim that “It was an accident”. Which side do you err on?

    I was beaten to it, but “beyond reasonable doubt” indeed seems to cover it.

    A friend was changing her baby on her bed when she noticed her toddler getting into dangerous mischief. She jumped up to protect the toddler and the baby rolled off the bed. Children’s Hospital of Dallas treated her like a criminal. They wouldn’t even let her comfort her baby until CPS became involved. Then CPS combed through her home and personal business for months.

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