An Irish woman imprisoned in Massachusetts saw her charges dropped after waiting 2 years for trial because the prosecution can’t prove the victim was actually murdered. In a stunning reversal, prosecutors dropped charges, this week, against Aisling Brady McCarthy, a nanny accused of murdering an infant under her care in 2013. The medical examiner’s office changed their initial ruling of homicide to undetermined.
The revised ruling, which followed a lengthy and highly rare review of the shaken baby syndrome case found that 1-year-old Rehma Sabir’s medical history “could have made her prone to easy bleeding with relatively minor trauma,” raising serious doubts that the child was a victim of abusive head trauma (alternative term for SBS).
“I believe that enough evidence has been presented to raise the possibility that the bleeding could have been related to an accidental injury in a child with a bleeding risk or possibly could have even been a result of an undefined natural disease,” medical examiner Katherine Lindstrom wrote.
McCarthy, 37, has always maintained her innocence. “Miss McCarthy was put in jail for 2½ years over a crime that never occurred,” said McCarthy’s lawyer, Melinda Thompson. “Not just a crime that she did not commit, but a crime that did not occur…” McCarthy will return to her native Ireland. McCarthy had been living in the U.S. since 2002. “She’s relieved, scared, and absolutely thankful” to the medical examiner’s office, she said.
Thompson said the prosecution’s handling of the case was disgraceful. “I think there was a rush to judgment,” she said.
In Ireland, where the case has received intense media coverage, most of the public reacted positively to news that McCarthy had been cleared. The accusation that a nanny caused the death of an infant in her care generated widespread shock and prompted outrage on both sides of the Atlantic.
Prosecutors had alleged that McCarthy assaulted the child of Sameer Sabir and Nada Siddiqui on Jan. 14, 2013, causing massive brain injury.
This ruling isn’t the first twist in the case. Alice Newton, a specialist retained by the prosecution determined the child died of abusive head trauma (a.k.a. SBS) and concluded the injuries could have been nothing else. Tests found that the infant suffered from bleeding on the brain and behind the eye, as well as other injuries that were “classic” signs of SBS (a sort of three prong test). There was “no other medical explanation for Rehma’s injuries or death,” Newton wrote.
McCarthy’s defense team submitted reports from other experts, who are part of a growing movement doubting the science behind shaken baby cases, that challenged the cause of death. They asserted that the child was sickly, suffered from a bleeding disorder, gastrointestinal problems, and that she sustained bone fractures a few weeks before her death when she wasn’t under the care of McCarthy.
Doctors who criticize the diagnosis include the research pioneer, Dr. Norman Guthkelch. Dr. Guthkelch coined the term SBS in 1971. However, he told the Medill Justice Center that he regrets even writing his research paper “because people are in jail on the basis of what they claim is my paper, when in fact it is nothing like it.”
Only a few months before the McCarthy case, prosecutors had to drop murder charges against another defendant in the death of his 6-month-old son because the medical examiner’s office initially ruled the death was a homicide, but changed their mind to undetermined. That case was Geoffrey Wilson’s case and Newton was the expert for the prosecution. Wilson, an MIT employee, had been charged with shaking his 6-month-old son Nathan to death in 2010, but his defense attorneys uncovered that he had a congenital heart condition that lead to his death.
Newton continued to defend her determination in both cases. In a hearing in 2014, Newton testified that Rehma’s injuries were consistent with “violent shaking”.
As the medical examiner’s office did a rare re-investigation into the case, they found that the child had a history of medical problems and that her overall health “raise[d] the possibility that she had some type of disorder that was not able to be completely diagnosed prior to her death. Given these uncertainties, I am no longer convinced that the subdural hemorrhage in this case could only have been caused by abusive/inflicted head trauma…” said Lindstrom.
The office “could no longer opine to a reasonable degree of medical certainty that the injuries were inflicted,” said Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan.
Stephen Weymouth, a Boston criminal defense attorney who has followed media coverage of the case, said the revised finding could be seen as an exoneration of McCarthy, especially since prosecutors spent nearly three years building the case.
- Boston Globe Article by Peter Schworm, Patricia Wen and Travis Andersen (8/31/2015)
- Wrongful Convictions Blog Article by Phil Locke (10/18/2014)
- Boston Globe Article 2 by Zachary Sampson (8/14/2015)
- Boston Globe Article 3 by Peter Schworm (9/5/2014)
- Boston Globe Article 4 by Peter Schworm (5/26/2015)
- On SBS Article (8/14/2014)
- Charles Smith Blog (8/31/2015)