An Arizona court has released from prison Drayton Witt. Witt had served half of a twenty-year sentence for fatally shaking his five-month-old son, Steven. The court found Witt’s conviction rested on medical beliefs whose accuracy is now in question.
For decades most physicians regarded subdural hematoma, cerebral edema, and retinal hemorrhage as virtually conclusive proof an infant had been shaken. The person caring for the child at the time he went into severe medical distress was considered necessarily the person who had done the shaking. Many parents and baby-sitters have gone to prison on little more evidence than that.
But now a distinguished minority of physicians is saying there has never been persuasive proof supporting these beliefs. The Arizona Justice Project brought Drayton Witt’s case to the attention of some of these physicians, and they wrote reports criticizing the evidence on which the jury had found Witt guilty.
Even A.L. Mosley, the medical examiner who ruled the child’s death a homicide in 2002, assisted Witt’s defense this year. Mosley reported to the judge who released Witt:
There is now no longer consensus in the medical community that the findings I reported in my autopsy report are reliable proof of SBS [shaken baby syndrome] or child abuse. … Steven had a complicated medical history, including unexplained neurological problems. He had no outward signs of abuse. If I were to testify today, I would state that I believe Steven’s death was likely the result of a natural disease process, not SBS.
The notion that shaking a baby could produce a distinctive cluster of medical signs originated substantially in a paper published in 1971 by Norman Guthkelch, a British pediatric neurosurgeon. Guthkelch is now 97 and lives in Arizona. The defense asked him to look at the Witt case. He did so and acknowledged to the court that aspects of SBS are now “open to serious doubt.” According to Guthkelch, diagnosing SBS as cause of Steven’s death was “inappropriate.”