Last year I wrote a column about a minority but growing chorus of forensic specialists who are questioning the way Shaken Baby Syndrome is diagnosed and used in the courtroom. New Scientist reports this week that one of those critics has been temporarily barred from testifying in U.K. courts.
The pathologist in question, Marta Cohen of Sheffield Children's Hospital, learned of the restrictions following a private hearing on 22 July before the General Medical Council, the body that investigates complaints against doctors in the UK.
"The decision is appalling," says John Plunkett of the Regina Medical Center in Hastings, Minnesota, who has shown that short falls can cause the trademark symptoms said to be exclusive to child abuse.
The fear of similar outcomes means that British-based pathologists who dispute SBS are unwilling to take on cases of alleged child abuse. "It means that no one will take any head injury cases," said one, who asked not to be named. "If you disagree with the prosecution, you risk being called before the GMC."
The verdict appears under Cohen's registration details on the GMC website, stating that: "She must not give evidence as an expert witness in cases where there is alleged non-accidental head injury to an infant or child." It also makes clear that the restrictions are temporary precautions while the complaints against her are further investigated by the GMC.
It is not clear who complained to the GMC, but the motivation appears to come from criticisms circulated to prosecution services by a judge, Justice Eleanor King, following cases last year in which Cohen gave evidence. King's criticisms included accusing Cohen of developing a "scientific prejudice", of being "disingenuous" in her citing of research and unwilling to defer to prosecution expert witnesses.
The GMC will not explore the validity of the competing scientific theories about SBS, and will simply investigate Cohen's "fitness to practice". The GMC's ruling comes at a time when evidence is mounting that innocent events such as the birth process itself, choking, short tumbles and breathing difficulties can cause the classic symptoms (BMJ, vol 2, p 430).
Given what we know about the history of forensic science and the tendency of specialists to overstate its certainty, the decision to bar an SBS critic from testifying is troubling. Even if the ban on Cohen is lifted, it sends a pretty clear message to SBS skeptics. Testify for the accused, and you're risking an investigation.