Del Prete Murder Conviction Overturned as Judge Questions Shaken Baby Syndrome Doctrine

An Illinois judge has overturned the murder conviction of Jennifer Del Prete, a former daycare worker who was prosecuted when an infant in her care died after being diagnosed with Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS).

Del Prete was imprisoned for almost 10 years before the court overturned her conviction. See Del Prete v. Thompson, No. 10-C-5070 (N.D. Ill. 2014). She alleged that she found the infant limp and immediately called 911. Del Prete denied shaking the child. There were no witnesses to corroborate her story. At trial, medical experts attributed the infant’s death to SBS, leading to Del Prete’s conviction.

The court overturned Del Prete’s conviction after receiving new medical testimony that doubted the SBS diagnosis. The new medical experts said recent scientific developments put SBS theories in doubt. The judge agreed with this skepticism, calling SBS “more an article of faith than a proposition of science.” The judge concluded that a jury considering this new testimony might well have reasonable doubt that Del Prete caused the child’s death.

In a Slate article, Deborah Tuerkheimer, a former prosecutor who has become a leading opponent of SBS prosecutions, cites many examples of similar cases resting on a SBS diagnosis. She includes the case of Drayton Witt, an Arizona father exonerated after the court similarly doubted the validity of SBS. Tuerkheimer applauds the “growing… skepticism… about criminal convictions based on the medical diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome,” but she acknowledges that “hundreds of inmates” are still incarcerated based on the SBS theory. She calls this problem a “gross dysfunction in our criminal justice system.”