The Larger Tragedy in an Unjust Accusation

Julianna and Greg Caplan and their 13-month-old twins.
Julianna and Greg Caplan and their 13-month-old twins. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
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Sunday, March 9, 2008

In the 18th century, Sir William Blackstone articulated what is known today as the Blackstone ratio: "It is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer." This phrase expresses a cornerstone of both English common law and American jurisprudence, the principle of "innocent until proven guilty."

But this principle sadly seems to have been unheeded or even deliberately overturned in matters of suspected child abuse. The D.C. code itself reads: "Where the petition alleges a child is a neglected child by reason of abuse, evidence of illness or injury to a child who was in the custody of his or her parent, guardian, or custodian for which the parent, guardian or custodian can give no satisfactory explanation shall be sufficient to justify an inference of neglect." So the stage is set.

I am the neurosurgeon who testified in defense of Greg and Julianna Caplan, whose 8-month-old twin girls were removed from their home by the D.C. government in a case recounted by Metro columnist Marc Fisher ["A Case of a Family Services Job Well Done, or Overdone?" Feb. 24]. The issue of retinal hemorrhages as a marker of so-called shaken-baby syndrome will not be settled on the editorial page of any newspaper; suffice it to say that the validity of such a marker has always been under serious question, as is the hypothesis (yes, it is still a hypothesis) that children must have been shaken manually to suffer such injuries. I believe that a true understanding based on objective science, and not subjective conjecture, will eventually prevail.

But the erosion of a fundamental tenet of our judicial system is another matter altogether, and it has gone unchecked and even accelerated over more than three decades, to the extent that such travesties as befell the Caplans now happen all over our country, and even beyond. Child protection agencies in virtually every state in the union have powers similar to those wielded in this case by the District, and they have used these powers in a similar fashion.

What the Caplans have endured and still continue to struggle with is not limited by race, ethnicity or income level. No one is safe once suspicion is aroused within an entity that has too much authority and too little comprehension. I speak from first-hand experience, having testified in many such cases over the past decade as a subject-matter expert for the defense. (I have yet to be contacted by any prosecuting attorney to review such matters.)

This is not to say that child abuse does not exist. I have witnessed such cases, and have been deeply and painfully moved by the plight of innocents who have been injured or even killed. This is certainly not acceptable. And yet I am no less moved by the plight of the wrongfully accused (and even convicted), their families and their loved ones. This is particularly so when such accusations are based on impure science, a flawed legal foundation, and completely inadequate or inappropriate public policy.

This is the United States, a republic founded on legal, moral and ethical principles that have served us well. It is not wise to become complacent, or to be forgetful or ignorant of such principles. The words "chaos," perhaps even "tyranny," come to mind.

-- Ronald H. Uscinski

Great Falls

The writer is on the faculties of Georgetown University Hospital and George Washington University Medical Center and is an adjunct fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Virginia.

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