On the SPLC podcast: New Medill database raises questions about patterns in prosecuting “shaken baby” cases

The sudden and mysterious death of an infant is a tragedy so wrenching that the justice system faces especially intense pressure to make certain that no killing goes unpunished. Thousands of deaths have been ascribed to “shaken baby syndrome,” a diagnosis that, in the absence of witnesses to the shaking, depends on circumstantial medical evidence, such as bleeding in the eyes and brain swelling.

Recent medical research, however, has raised questions about the certainty of shaken-baby evidence. Accidents and disease can produce symptoms mimicking those attributed to violent shaking, and the results of shaking can take time to show themselves, making it difficult to pinpoint which caregiver was responsible. Last year, California Gov. Jerry Brown commuted the sentence of a 51-year-old grandmother who’d spent 10 years in prison for the death of her grandson, based on shaken-baby evidence so equivocal that a federal appeals court court concluded “there was no verifiable evidence to support the prosecution experts’ testimony.”

Journalism students at Northwestern University have spent years digging into the reliability of shaken-baby convictions as part of their research at the Medill Justice Project (formerly known as the Medill Innocence Project).

Their interest was provoked in part by the case of a Chicago-area day-care operator convicted in the 1995 death of a 10-month-old boy. Their research raised doubts about the validity of the conviction, which relied on evidence so ambiguous that one medical expert who examined the case afterward told Medill student reporters: “This lady is probably sitting in jail for no reason.”

While there are mountains of research about shaken-baby syndrome, no one had tried comprehensively to quantify how frequently the diagnosis leads to prosecution, and whether particular prosecutors are especially inclined to bring shaken-baby cases. That is where Medill journalism professor Alec Klein and his student researchers got started.

In this month’s SPLC podcast, Medill Justice Project graduate fellow Lauryn Schroeder discusses how her team scoured news reports and court records to create a nationwide database of more than 3,000 instances over the past 25 years in which an infant death has been publicly attributed to shaking.

Their online map shows that shaken-baby prosecutions are markedly more common in certain parts of the country, such as Summit County, Ohio, near Cleveland. Schroeder suggests that one reason might be publicity — once a highly publicized shaken-baby case takes place in a community, investigators and doctors begin looking more suspiciously at each subsequent death.

As Schroeder discusses on the podcast, the data is raw and shouldn’t be taken to suggest that prosecutors in case-heavy jurisdictions are doing something wrong. It’s possible that the “hot spots” for prosecution are the only ones getting it right. Nevertheless, it’s illogical that caregivers in certain communities are three or four times more likely to shake babies to death than in other comparable locations, so the data tells us… something. Schroeder is hoping that journalists nationwide will take the Medill Justice Project searchable database and run with it, using information about their own areas to ask deeper questions about whether cases are being investigated and prosecuted correctly.