Physicians Argue Shaken Baby Syndrome is Not Conclusive of Shaking

Over the last thirty years, prosecutors have used Shaken Baby Syndrome as conclusive evidence that a criminal defendant, usually a caretaker, shook an infant. However, scientific advances have led some physicians to call SBS diagnoses inconclusive. So reports Jessica Pishko in The Atlantic.

SBS is diagnosed when an infant presents a triad of symptoms: brain bleeding, retinal bleeding, and brain swelling. Typically, the last known caretaker is accused of shaking. The diagnosis is often the sole evidence in an SBS prosecution. According to Pishko, “Law enforcement officials estimate that in 50 to 75 percent of these cases, there is no other evidence of child abuse.”

In the typical SBS case, a medical expert called by the prosecution will testify that an SBS diagnosis alone proves the child was shaken. Many defendants have difficulty disputing the diagnosis—some even give false confessions after being led to believe that the diagnosis is indeed conclusive.

However, many physicians now question whether SBS is a truly conclusive diagnosis. These physicians have reported that the triad of symptoms may also be consistent with a short fall. Among these physicians is Norman Guthkelch, widely credited with the “discovery” of SBS decades ago.

As physicians have called SBS diagnoses into doubt, so have courts. One example is the Del Prete case where a former caretaker was released from prison after she was convicted of shaking an infant. The judge there called SBS “unscientific and thus unsupportable.” I wrote about the Del Prete case here. The Wisconsin Innocence Project reports that at least 19 cases “relying solely on SBS” have been recently overturned.

The justice system has been slow to respond to this change in theory about SBS diagnoses. “There has been no systemic response to determine whether there are more cases of actual innocence, like Del Prete’s,” Pishko reports. However, as more physicians question SBS diagnoses, more cases of innocence may be revealed.