The Supreme Court of Sweden has found insufficient scientific support for the theory that underlies many prosecutions for assaulting infants and causing brain injuries. The court therefore has reversed the Gross Assault conviction of a father identified only as MM in its Case No. B 3438-12.
The theory, originally known as “shaken baby syndrome” and more recently called “abusive head trauma,” posits that a “triad” of symptoms cannot occur in an infant unless the child has been subjected to either violent shaking or an extremely forceful accident (such as a fall from a great height or a motor vehicle collision). The three symptoms are subdural hematoma, retinal hemorrhages, and cerebral edema. According to the theory, once those evaluating a child with the triad exclude the possibility of an extremely forceful accident, they know for certain that someone has assaulted the child. MM was convicted on this basis.
In Sweden, unlike Washington state and other U.S. jurisdictions, the supreme court can receive evidence not available at trial. Here it took testimony from two medical experts.
The court noted that the SBS theory emerged in the 1960’s and had grown “into a medical truth over several decades” even though evidence for it remained “thin.”
The court concluded that shaken baby syndrome is an unproven theory:
In view of what has emerged recently, there is currently no clarity about the extent to which the components of the triad are specific to violent shaking… Instead, it must be concluded that we do not know; we are in a quagmire.
The court also expressed skepticism that an infant could undergo such violent shaking without sustaining neck injuries.
The medical and legal debate about SBS continues to play out around the world. The most dramatic recent example in the Seattle area was the Tacoma trial of Jeremy Yerger. The jury hung, and retrial is likely.