Shaken Baby Syndrome, Wrongful Convictions, and the Dangers of Aversion to Changing Science in Criminal Law
Spontaneous subarachnoid haemorrhage (SAH) in children is uncommon, but is sometimes seen after rupture of aneurysms, and in different disorders. Traumatic SAH is common after serious accidental head injury, but is also reported after child abuse with vigorous shaking. To avoid unnecessary accusations of innocent care givers, it is important not to misinterpret the findings as abusive head trauma in small children with SAH.
In the presented case, a nearly two-year-old girl was brought to the hospital after a fall witnessed by her father. The girl was unconscious, with elevated intracranial pressure, SAH and bilateral retinal haemorrhage (RH). She was pronounced dead after 9 h. Premortem angiography revealed a dissection of the right vertebral artery, and postmortem examination revealed a traumatic lesion deep in the neck, at the base of the skull. Cerebral edema, in combination with SAH and RH, is highly suggestive of abusive head trauma. However, no external lesions, no skeletal lesions, especially no long bone metaphyseal lesions, or subdural haematomas occurring at the same time as SAH, were found. There was no report of previous child abuse in the family. Based on the radiological and postmortem findings, we believe that an accidental fall caused a blunt force trauma with a subsequent dissection of the right vertebral artery.
To our knowledge, accidental tear of one of the vertebral arteries, leading to SAH in a toddler, has previously not been described. Child abuse is an important exclusion diagnosis with serious legal implications.
The English-language medical case literature was searched for cases of apparent or alleged child abuse between the years 1969 and 2001. Three-hundred and twenty-four cases that contained detailed individual case information were analyzed yielding 54 cases in which someone was recorded as having admitted, in some fashion, to have shaken the injured baby. Individual case findings were tabulated and analyzed with respect to shaking as being the cause for the injuries reported. For all 54 admittedly-shaken-infant cases, the provided details regarding the shaking incidents and other events are reported. Data in the case reports varied widely with respect to important details. Only 11 cases of admittedly shaken babies showed no sign of cranial impact (apparently free-shaken). This small number of cases does not permit valid statistical analysis or support for many of the commonly stated aspects of the so-called shaken baby syndrome.
Leestma, Jan E. MD, MM
A 4-month-old male infant presented to the emergency room with a history of choking while bottle feeding at home, and was found by emergency medical services (EMS) to be apneic and pulseless. He subsequently developed disseminated intravascular coagulopathy and died. Computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) showed subdural hemorrhages (SDHs), subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH), and retinal hemorrhages (RHs), along with findings of hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE). The caretaker account appeared to be inconsistent with the clinical and imaging features, and a diagnosis of nonaccidental injury with “shaken baby syndrome” was made. The autopsy revealed diffuse anoxic central nervous system (CNS) changes with marked edema, SAH, and SDH, but no evidence of “CNS trauma.” Although NAI could not be ruled out, the autopsy findings provided further evidence that the child’s injury could result from a dysphagic choking type of acute life threatening event (ALTE) as consistently described by the caretaker.
Medical research provides new tools for the defense in “shaken baby syndrome” cases. (article starts on page 15 )
Grounded or ‘Shaky’: How Mobilizations of Expert Knowledge Affect Legal Outcomes in Shaken Baby Syndrome Cases