Part I, Section I

Prosecutors build murder cases on disputed Shaken Baby Syndrome diagnosis


Mother acquitted of shaking a baby: ‘I would have committed suicide’

Part I, Section II

Doctors who defend shaking diagnosis dismiss scientific challenges


Prosecutor: ‘The public should know that this can kill’


The unsettled science of Shaken Baby Syndrome

Part I, Section III

Mother released from prison: ‘It hurts too bad to remember’


After five years in prison, a young mother is set free

Part I, Section IV

In Maryland, a baby collapses and a babysitter is blamed

Part I, Section V

Prosecutor to jurors: ‘Healthy babies just don't die’

Part I, Section VI

But that year, the case took a significant turn.


Babysitter once sentenced to 20 years in prison: ‘I’m not gonna say that I killed somebody’


A breakdown of the dismissed cases


Map: Parents and caregivers accused of shaking nationwide


Former medical examiner: ‘Alleged cases of pure shaking are unusual’

Part II, Section I

Doctors who diagnosed Shaken Baby Syndrome now defend the accused


Doctor who helped introduce the hypothesis behind Shaken Baby Syndrome: ‘I don’t think innocent people should be in jail’

Part II, Section II

A child abuse diagnosis raises questions, doubts


Accident reconstruction specialist: ‘We need to apply the science’

Part II, Section III

Engineers: Falls could be more dangerous than shaking


A biomechanical look at shaking


How much acceleration can be generated by shaking a 22-pound crash-test dummy

Part II, Section IV

Doctor: ‘What could be right about getting it wrong?’

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Shaken science

A disputed diagnosis imprisons parents

Doctors who defend shaking diagnosis dismiss scientific challenges

You are reading one part of an investigative series on the disputed Shaken Baby Syndrome diagnosis that has put people behind bars.

Doctors and prosecutors who defend the diagnosis dismiss the challenges, saying Shaken Baby Syndrome is supported by years of clinical work, research and confessions from parents and caregivers. They say the doctors and scientists who frequently testify for the defense are on the fringes of mainstream medicine and are often paid to provide testimony.

“There is absolutely no question among any ICU doc that I’ve worked with that shaking a kid can cause these things,” said Desmond Runyan, a Colorado-based pediatrician and professor who has spent more than 30 years researching child abuse.

The doctors said they don’t rely solely on the internal head and eye injuries linked to shaking to make a diagnosis: They also look for external signs of abuse, weigh the accounts of caregivers and take steps to rule out natural causes and accidents.

“In the first 10 minutes the kid is in the hospital, we rule out meningitis, we rule out leukemia, we rule out sepsis,” said California pediatrician John Stirling. “It is a standard of practice to do those things, and in most cases, that is what is done.”

Prosecutors also say they consider all circumstances surrounding a baby’s death.

“I think it’s a very clever and misleading device . . . to reduce these cases down to a sound bite,” said Leigh Bishop, a prosecutor who is chief of the Child Fatality Unit in Queens County, N.Y. “We’re never in a rush to go out and throw handcuffs on somebody.”

Prosecutors add that judges have overturned Shaken Baby convictions for a range of reasons — not necessarily because they thought the science was flawed.

“It’s a correct diagnosis,” said Mary-Ann Burkhart of the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse at the National District Attorneys Association. “All areas of science and law change and evolve as more information comes to light; however, the fact that children too often suffer fatal abuse at the hands of their caretakers — and that abuse includes traumatic head injuries — has not changed.”

As questions about the diagnosis mounted, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that doctors stop using the term “Shaken Baby Syndrome,” noting that “the precise mechanisms for all abusive injuries remain incompletely understood.” Instead, the academy in 2009 suggested a broader term that is now widely used —abusive head trauma — that includes shaking, blunt force impact or a combination of both.

The battle over the science has played out in court cases across the country.

In December, a judge in New York overturned the murder conviction of a 55-year-old babysitter who had spent more than a decade in prison, declaring that the shaking evidence against her was “either demonstrably wrong or are now subject to new debate.”

Two weeks later, a Texas judge recommended a new trial for a man sentenced to 35 years in 2000 for injuring his girlfriend’s daughter. The district attorney and the defense attorney had submitted a joint agreement to the court stating that “the science that formed the basis of the conviction is now known to be unsound.”

In the cases where convictions were overturned, defendants had to marshal significant legal resources and medical expertise to challenge the scientific testimony against them. Some have been supported by lawyers affiliated with the Innocence Network, a worldwide organization that works to exonerate defendants who say they were wrongly convicted. The network’s affiliates are currently working on at least a hundred Shaken Baby cases.

“It’s almost always taken massive legal and medical support to do that, the kind of support that your typical criminal defendant simply doesn’t have access to,” said law professor Keith Findley, who has helped represent Shaken Baby defendants through the Wisconsin Innocence Project at the University of Wisconsin.

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