Studies Disagree on Shaken-Baby Syndrome

The Associated Press
Saturday, April 28, 2007; 6:41 PM

-- When 7-month-old Natalie Beard's body arrived in the autopsy room, there were no outward signs of physical abuse. No broken bones, bruises or abrasions. But behind her pretty brown eyes and beneath her fine dark-brown hair, there was chaos.

Both retinas were puckered and clouded red. And there was acute bleeding outside and beneath the brain's outer membrane _ the kind of bleeding most often associated with a burst aneurysm.

To forensic experts, these were classic signs that Natalie was shaken to death.

The common wisdom in such "shaken-baby" cases was that the last person with the child before symptoms appeared was the guilty party, and a Wisconsin jury convicted baby sitter Audrey Edmunds of first-degree reckless homicide.

Edmunds is now 10 years into her 18-year prison sentence, and she's seeking a new trial.

In the decade since her conviction, her attorneys say, many experts have studied the physics and biomechanics of shaken-baby syndrome and have concluded that shaking alone could not have produced Natalie's injuries without leaving other evidence of abuse.

Among those now questioning the diagnosis is Dr. Robert Huntington III, the forensic pathologist who examined Natalie's body and whose testimony helped put Edmunds away.

If the trial were held today, Huntington told The Associated Press recently, "I'd say she died of a head injury, and I don't know when it happened ... There's room for reasonable doubt."

Some judges in other cases have broadly agreed.

Last year, a judge in Manatee County, Fla., barred use of the term "shaken baby syndrome" because of its possible prejudicial influence on jurors.

A Kentucky judge subjected shaken-baby to a "Daubert" test _ a kind of mini-trial to determine the validity and admissibility of certain evidence. Circuit Judge Lewis Nicholls decided he could not admit expert testimony on a theory whose foundation may amount to "merely educated guesses" about the cause of death.

"The best the Court can conclude is that the theory of SBS is currently being tested, yet the theory has not reached acceptance in the scientific community," Nicholls ruled.

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