From “Shaken Baby Debate: Steps Forward, Steps Backward” by Sue Luttner
Child Abuse Charges Dropped Against Father and EMT
A Colorado prosecutor has dropped the charges against Jason Schneider after a hung jury resulted in a mistrial. The jury had reached a stalemate at 10-2, the majority advocating for acquittal. Mr. Schneider, an EMT and former volunteer firefighter, was charged with child abuse after an incident during which, he said, his son seemed to choke on a bottle and stop breathing, despite Mr. Schneider’s efforts to revive him.
The State’s theory against Mr. Schneider was based solely on the “Shaken Baby” triad of symptoms: bleeding in the retinas of the eyes, bleeding of the brain (subdural hematoma), and brain swelling, all occurring in the absence of a recent trauma or other explanation for the injuries. These symptoms are often referred to as “the triad.”
After the mistrial, the State filed a motion to dismiss the case, in part because of two letters to the prosecutor after trial by jurors, urging the State to drop the charges. One juror wrote that many jurors on the case thought Mr. Schneider’s trial was a “poor prosecutorial decision” and that the case should have been dismissed. In his letter, this juror attributed the hung jury to two members who approached deliberations with a presumption of guilt instead of innocence.
The letter-writer was also critical of the prosecutor’s trial tactics at trial and remarked that the defense’s experts (who had years of experience and knew the research in their specialties) were much more impressive than local experts called by the State. According to the juror, the State used “inexperienced doctors” from the local children’s hospital, who “believe the triad is gospel as far as Shaken Baby Syndrome/NAI [non-accidental trauma] is concerned.” The specialists who testified for Mr. Schneider’s defense shared an alternative view that has steadily been gaining traction in the medical community – that the so-called triad can be explained by causes other than shaking.
Ultimately, the State recognized the case against Mr. Schneider was very thin and filed a motion to dismiss. In the motion, the prosecutor said that there was no “realistic likelihood of a jury composed of 12 different members of the community reaching a unanimous decision finding [Mr. Schneider] guilty.” The case was dismissed.
Father Found Not Guilty in Baby’s Tragic Death
According to Mark Hontz, his son’s death was a tragic accident: he tripped and fell down the stairs to his basement with the 11-week old baby in his arms. Mr. Hontz said he landed on top of his son at the bottom of their fall. The baby died of his injuries.
Doctors at the University of Michigan refused to believe Mr. Hontz’s version of events. They did not accept that the child’s injuries had come from an accidental fall. Instead, they believed that the baby’s anterior rib fractures and neck damage were “more consistent” with “the compression and whiplash that occur during squeezing and shaking than with a fall down stairs.” As a result, Mr. Hontz was charged with murder and child abuse.
At trial, several pieces of evidence brought forward by the defense pointed to Mr. Hontz’s innocence. A biomechanical engineer testified that an adult falling forward down stairs is propelled by the force of gravity until the motion “is arrested by contact with the ground or steps.” The engineer calculated that the infant experienced a vertical fall of nine feet, landing with an approximate speed of sixteen miles per hour. This accidental trauma could easily produce the injuries that killed Baby Hontz.
Also exonerating was that Mr. Hontz’s story never changed as he went through a series of police interrogations. Even when confronted with the medical opinion that his son did not die from a fall down the stairs, Mr. Hontz offered no alternative explanation.
Mr. Hontz’s attorney also called a forensic pathologist, a child abuse pediatrician, and a pediatric radiologist to rebut the prosecution’s theory.
Mr. Hontz was found not guilty of murder or child abuse and returned to his family.
At the Marshall Defense Firm, we defend so-called “shaken baby” and “abusive head trauma” cases in the Seattle area and throughout Washington State. We are grateful to Sue Luttner for helping us stay up to date, not just on court cases like these two, but also on medical developments concerning infant brain injuries.