Va. day-care provider convicted in 'shaken baby' case

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 22, 2010

A Fairfax County day-care provider was convicted by a jury Thursday of felony child abuse and child cruelty for shaking a 4-month-old baby and causing him lasting brain damage.

Defense attorneys had argued that Trudy E. Munoz Rueda had not shaken the baby and that the concept of "shaken baby syndrome" was "junk science" that has not been proven by scientific evidence. The lawyers on both sides of the courtroom launched a battle of national experts on the issue, with the jury taking only five hours to side with those who say it is certainly possible to severely injure an infant merely by shaking the child.

Noah Whitmer, now 13 months old, remains partially blind and continues to have seizures, his parents said. On April 20, when he was rushed to Inova Fairfax Hospital, he had hemorrhages in his brain and behind both eyes in addition to seizures. Doctors feared that he might die. His case was assigned to the police homicide squad, and detectives went that afternoon to Munoz's home in Franconia, where Noah had collapsed.

Munoz, 45, told detectives that day that she hadn't harmed him, and she took the witness stand Wednesday to repeat her claim. "I have never shaken a baby," she told the jury. Her attorneys reminded jurors that Munoz had been a licensed provider for five years with a spotless record and that she was raising two girls of her own.

The defense attorneys provided an alternative theory about what happened to Noah: that he had suffered a spontaneous re-bleeding of a chronic, hidden hematoma in his brain, possibly caused by a traumatic birth that tore blood vessels in his brain.

James Kearney summoned three experts who challenged the idea that shaking a baby, without any impact and without any evidence of external injuries to the neck, arms or torso, could cause blood vessels in the brain to break.

Kirk L. Thibault, a biomechanical engineer, said his tests showed that people could not summon nearly enough force to cause brain damage. Ronald H. Uscinski, a pediatric neurosurgeon who has testified in more than 100 shaken-baby cases nationwide, said that Noah's brain scans showed he had been bleeding long before April 20 and that the accumulated pressure caused his collapse.

And Horace Gardner, an ophthalmologist, said that the difficult process of birth can also, in many cases, cause babies' brains to bleed and that constant re-bleeding builds internal pressure and creates retinal hemorrhages.

He also said Noah's head had grown unusually fast in four months, an indicator of fluid and pressure growing inside his skull.

Prosecutors called many of Noah's attending doctors at Inova Fairfax Hospital to explain their conclusion that his brain trauma was no accident. Among them was intensive care pediatrician Craig Futterman, president of the national Shaken Baby Alliance.

Then, after the defense experts had taken their best shots at shaken-baby syndrome, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Gregory O. Holt responded with two additional witnesses.

Cindy W. Christian, a Philadelphia pediatrician and shaken-baby syndrome expert, said the scans of Noah's brain showed only fresh blood and no evidence of re-bleeding or a chronic condition. She also charted Noah's head growth and said it had gone from the 15th percentile among babies at birth to the 50th percentile at four months. "There was absolutely nothing wrong with this baby's head growth," Christian said. "Nothing."

But, she noted, Noah's head has hardly grown at all in the nine months since he suffered his brain injury.

Christian T. Muller, a Fairfax neuroradiologist, questioned Uscinski's readings of Noah's CT and MRI scans. There were no signs that a chronic hematoma in Noah's head existed before April 20, Muller said.

The case was watched closely by the support community for those affected by shaken-baby syndrome and also by friends and countrymen of Munoz, a Peruvian national whose family held fundraisers to pay for her defense. Fernando Quiros, Peru's consul general to the United States, attended several days of the trial and said candlelight vigils were being held for Munoz in Peru.

After the verdict, Noah's father, Michael Whitmer of Fairfax County, said: "It's hard to describe the stress. It's almost as if we haven't breathed since April." He added, "Uscinski was completely debunked. Gardner was completely debunked."

Erin Whitmer, Noah's mother, noted that the "chronic hematoma re-bleeds" cited by the defense "never seem to occur in a public place. Only behind closed doors with no one else present."

The jury will return to Fairfax Circuit Court on Friday to consider sentences of two to 10 years on the abuse charge and one to five years on the cruelty charge.

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