Nearly a decade after Jennifer Del Prete, a Hickory Hills, Illinois daycare worker, was convicted of murdering an infant, a federal judge has ruled that new evidence points to her innocence, including the questionable and controversial science of shaken baby syndrome (SBS) used to convict her.  U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly wrote a 97-page order that marked a significant legal success for Del Prete, which could ultimately lead to a new trial, in the 2003 death of Isabella Zielinkski, 14-months-old.  Judge Kennelly added it was the court’s responsibility to determine whether a reasonable juror, who heard all of the evidence, would find Del Prete guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

“The answer to that question is a rather resounding no,” the judge wrote.

Del Prete, 43, has served 8 years of her 20-year sentence and Patrick Blegen, her lead defense attorney, says that they must now file separate claims that her trial lawyers erred in not challenging the science behind SBS and they presented an inadequate expert to testify about Zielinksi’s injuries. It is now believed that the child may have died from a blood clot in the brain.

“We are pleased with the judge’s ruling, but we know we still have some work to do,” Blegen said.

A jury convicted Del Prete of shaking Isabella while caring for her at a home based day-care center in December of 2002.  The baby suffered brain damage and died 10 months later.  Del Prete called 911 and administered CPR until paramedics arrived. At her sentencing in 2005, Del Prete vowed to fight to prove her innocence.

Among the new evidence cited by Judge Kennelly was a decade-old letter written by a police detective in Del Prete’s case discovered by The Medill Justice Project through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.  In the 2003 letter, Police Commander Kenneth Kroll said that the forensic pathologist who conducted the autopsy questioned whether the cause of death was actually shaken baby syndrome (SBS) also now sometimes referred to as abusive head trauma.  The judge also referred to the prosecution’s reliance on the expert testimony of one doctor.  In hearings after the conviction, experts for both sides rejected several findings of the prosecutor’s original trial expert.

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