Thousands of Americans are behind bars because of Shaken Baby Syndrome, but experts now believe that the science of SBS isn’t as reliable as once thought. Since 2000, 11 Mississippians have been convicted in SBS cases and two of them are on death row. One of them is Jeffrey Havard.
February 21, 2002, a Thursday in Natchez, Mississippi, lab technician Shelley Smith ran to the local energy room holding the body of 6-month-old Chloe Madison Britt. By 10 p.m. that night, Chloe’s face and brain were swollen, less than an hour later, she was declared dead. Nine days before Christmas, the next year, a jury was selected for the capital murder trial of Jeffrey Havard, 22. He was the boyfriend of Chloe’s mother, Rebecca.
Throughout the trial including the opening statement, Assistant District Attorney Tom Rosenblatt referenced shaken baby syndrome. The defense attorney, Robert Clark, presented to jurors that Havard was holding Chloe and she slipped out of his hands because she was wet from a bath. She fell, hitting her head on the toilet seat.
“Jeffrey did not intend to kill this child,” he said. “This was an accident.”
All the doctors in the trial concluded that a triad of symptoms she exhibited were classic SBS. The pathologist for the state, Dr. Steven Hayne, testified, “The type of injuries that you can see that parallel these are in motor vehicle crashes, falls from significant heights…” It took just 40 minutes for the jury to convict Havard. His family begged jurors to save his life, but jurors wanted Havard to die. Now, SBS is criticized as unreliable forensics.
Pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Norman Guthkelch always wondered why some children bled in their brains, but had no outside trauma. It was a medical mystery being reported for decades. When a colleague suffered a similar effect after riding a roller coaster, Guthkelch suggested whiplash injuries were to blame. In a paper published in 1971, he coined shaken baby syndrome. In the years that followed, SBS quickly skyrocketed to a widely respected medical diagnosis. SBS consists of a triad of symptoms: subdural bleeding (between the brain and skull), retinal bleeding (bleeding behind the eye), and swelling of the brain. It didn’t take long for courts to recognize the diagnosis as evidence against the accused, proof of abuse or as Deborah Tuerkheimer, author of Flawed Convictions: Shaken Baby Syndrome and the Inertia of Injustice put it, “a medical diagnosis for murder.”
In 1987, 16 years later, biochemical engineers at Penn State University began to raise concerns about the theory that shaking alone could cause that much damage. They maintained that only head impacts could do that. Despite this, SBS continued to be used and prosecuted.
In 1995, Audrey Edmunds, a Wisconsin caregiver, was charged with murder. Prosecutors concluded that she shook 7-month-old Natalie Beard, to death. There were no witnesses and no other evidence of abuse. She was convicted, but maintained her innocence. She was sentenced to 18 years. Since then, the medical belief of SBS went from ironclad to a crumble of questions and doubts. Study after study has shown that shaking a baby violently could not cause injury without injuring the neck or spine. In 2008, the Wisconsin Supreme Court granted Edmunds a new trial over the objections of the prosecution.
The emergence of a “significant dispute within the medical community as to the cause of those injuries…constitutes newly discovered evidence,” the court concluded.
Justices continued that her trial lacked “fierce debate” on the veracity and reliability of the forensics.
“Now, a jury would be faced with competing credible medical opinions in determining whether there is a reasonable doubt…”
Prosecutors dismissed the charges and did not retry Edmunds. She walked free after 11 years in prison.
Mississippi State Representative Kevin Horan, a former prosecutor who handled the appeal of a man convicted of shaken baby syndrome, would like to see a review of SBS cases in the state.
“Most of the shaken-baby cases are legitimate. They’re not really shaken baby, but blunt force trauma.”
As for Guthkelch, the pioneer of the idea, he isn’t so convinced anymore. He doesn’t like the way his theory is being used in courts of law.
He told the Medill Justice Center that he regrets even writing his 1971 paper “because people are in jail on the basis of what they claim is my paper, when in fact it is nothing like it.”
New York pathologist Dr. Michael Baden read the autopsy report for Chloe Britt and examined the evidence of the case, at the request of The Clarion-Ledger.
“There is no autopsy or scientific evidence to support a diagnosis that Chloe died of shaken-baby syndrome,” Baden said.
As for Havard’s description of the events that day, dropping the baby is “entirely consistent”. The majority of experts who review the case now agree with that conclusion.
Hayne, who concluded that Britt was murdered, acknowledged in an interview that there is “growing evidence” that the diagnosis “is probably not correct.”
In 2001, Minnesota pathologist Dr. John Plunkett conducted a study examining falls from playground equipment. He concluded that short-distance falls are capable of producing SBS symptoms. The medical community dismissed the possibility for years, but now, with a multitude of research showing conclusions just like Dr. Plunkett’s, it is quickly becoming recognized truth. “It’s clear that low velocity, even a 2- or 3-foot fall can cause serious and fatal brain injury,” he told The Clarion-Ledger. “If people had paid attention to the science, it would not have been a mystery.”
Prosecutor Ronnie Harper still believes that a short fall could not have killed Britt. Havard is sitting on death row, awaiting execution, for something that even the state’s pathologist admits may never have happened. Sexual assault was the underlying felony allowing the state to pursue the death penalty against Havard. Questions also swirl about that conclusion.
Hayne, the state’s pathologist didn’t see evidence of sexual assault during his autopsy,
“I didn’t think there was a sexual assault.”
But the state presented, doctors, nurses, and police officers who told the jurors there was other evidence showing sexual assault. Havard is currently seeking a new trial based upon new scientific evidence.
“Jeffrey’s death sentence is built on the twin pillars of sexual abuse and shaken-baby syndrome,” said defense lawyer Graham Carner, “Both of those pillars have crumbled under the weight of objective science and undisputed facts.”
He went on to say that a competent investigation would have shown that Havard was telling the truth, “her death was a terrible accident, not murder. The tragedy of her death has been compounded by Jeffrey’s unfair conviction and death sentence.”
Havard told The Clarion-Ledger that he hopes to have a fair day in court, not just for himself, but for Chloe’s family, the public, and the original jury.
“I’d like to see the truth come out,” he said, “I want nothing more than to clear my name. It would mean the world for them to know that she didn’t suffer like they’ve been told.”