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The Truth about Shaken Baby Syndrome

Over the years, many parents and caregivers have been convicted of crimes as a result of injuries to infants labeled “Shaken Baby Syndrome”. In many cases, child abuse and violence in the home had been well documented, and there was other evidence supporting the convictions. However, in many cases, defendants with no prior history of violence who steadfastly asserted their innocence were convicted based solely on the diagnosis of Shaken Baby Syndrome. Now, the very foundation of that diagnosis is being questioned, and 16 defendants across the country have been released based on a diagnosis that is under fire.

Shaken Baby Syndrome is actually “a 40-year-old medical diagnosis long defined by three internal conditions: swelling of the brain, bleeding on the surface of the brain and bleeding in the back of the eyes. The diagnosis gave a generation of doctors a way to account for unexplained head injuries in babies and prosecutors a stronger case for criminal intent when police had no witnesses, no confessions and only circumstantial evidence.” The problem is that testing has failed to show that shaking a baby can produce those injuries.

According to an exhaustive Washington Post investigation, “you can’t necessarily prove [Shaken Baby Syndrome] one way or another — sort of like politics or religion,” said forensic pathologist Gregory G. Davis, the chief medical examiner in Birmingham, Ala., and the board chairman of the National Association of Medical Examiners. “Neither side can point to compelling evidence and say, ‘We’re right and the other side is wrong.’ So instead, it goes to trial.”

Out of approximately 1,800 cases throughout the country, almost 1,600 resulted in convictions – a conviction rate that is higher than for most other violent crimes. In about a dozen cases, doctors either later reversed their opinions, or were contradicted by later examinations by other medical examiners.

Convictions based solely on Shaken Baby Syndrome happen throughout the U.S., including in Burlington County, NJ. The battle is ongoing in courts across the country, and will likely continue for some time. Without additional internal or external injuries, however, Shaken Baby Syndrome is becoming less viable as evidence to convict someone beyond a reasonable doubt.

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