Shaken Science: Washington Post Examines Disputed Shaken Baby Syndrome Diagnosis

The Washington Post has paired with Northwestern University’s Medill Justice Project to examine Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS) cases, finding that the science behind the theory has become more disputed over time. The full investigation is available here.

The study gathered cases where there were documented accusations of shaking from 2001 forward. The project used news outlets’ social media and court records to locate about 1800 resolved cases allegedly involving shaking. Of the 1800 cases, about 1600 resulted in a conviction: a conviction rate higher than that of most violent crimes.

The investigation mapped the 1800 cases nationwide. The counties with the highest numbers of shaking accusations in Washington state were King County, which had 7-10 shaking accusations, and Pierce County, which had 4-6 shaking accusations. (Doctors at Seattle Children’s Hospital are the expert witnesses supporting shaken baby prosecutions in many counties in Washington state.)

Sixteen SBS convictions have been overturned in the United States since 2011. Some reversals involved doctors who testified they were uncertain about the timing or cause of injury, while other physicians admitted they had made mistakes in their diagnosis and the infants’ injuries were likely not caused by violence.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that physicians stop using the term “Shaken Baby Syndrome,” noting that SBS is a theory that remains unproven. (Many doctors now speak instead of “abusive head trauma,” but this name, too, implies the infant’s injuries were criminally caused.) One forensic pathologist argues that “you can’t necessarily prove [Shaken Baby Syndrome] one way or another.” Despite this uncertainty, prosecutors are using this diagnosis as the center of criminal cases, which require proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Those who fight their convictions require substantial legal support, including testimony of medical experts. One law professor notes “it’s almost always taken massive legal and medical support to do that, the kind of support that your typical criminal defendant simply doesn’t have access to.” The investigation includes several interviews with parents and caregivers accused of shaking a child, all confirming the uphill legal battle those accused of shaking a child face.