Doubts About Shaken Baby Syndrome Diagnosis Set Convicted Parents and Caregivers Free
Drayton Witt of Tucson spent 10 years behind bars after being convicted in 2002 of shaking to death his girlfriend's 4-month old son, Steven Holt.
And he likely would have served 10 more years for the murder of Steven had the Arizona Justice Project -- along with retired British pediatric neurosurgeon Norman Guthkelch and several other medical experts -- not stepped in to re-examine his case.
Guthkelch is credited with developing the medical theory in 1971 that laid the groundwork for what later would became known as shaken baby syndrome. He apparently was dismayed by what he read in 2008 when he was asked to review Witt's case.
See this week's cover story - Assumptions About Shaken Baby Syndrome Now Being Questioned
Witt was accused of violently shaking the baby in his care with such force that the infant's brain slammed around his skull, causing it to bleed and swell and the child to hemorrhage though his eyes.
Medical professionals pointed to the triad of symptoms in the deceased child as a clear case of shaken baby syndrome, or non-accidental head trauma. The Justice Project's strategy was, in part, to point to new medical evidence that demonstrates that other conditions can mimic symptoms long considered to be present only in cases of abuse.
In a position paper, Guthkelch acknowledged that aspects of SBS were now "open to serious doubt" and that a diagnosis of SBS as cause of death in Witt's case was "inappropriate," according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and Northwestern University School of Law's Center on Wrongful Convictions.
Similarly, forensic pathologist John Plunkett cites in one of his studies that even short falls have caused those exact symptoms on young children.
One of the findings in Plunkett's study, "Fatal Pediatric Head Injuries Caused By Short Distance Falls," was that "a fall from less than 10 feet in an infant or child may cause fatal head injury and may not cause immediate symptoms."
He wrote that a "history from the caretaker that the child may have fallen cannot be dismissed."
Among the 19 cases he reviewed, Plunkett cited one in which a nearly 2-year-old girl was playing on a plastic gym set with her older brother while in their grandmother's care.
Grandma was videotaping the children at play -- eliminating suspicion that the child was intentionally harmed -- and captured on video the little girl losing her balance from atop a 28-inch ladder and slamming her head into a carpeted concrete floor.
The girl eventually succumbed to her injuries, which included a large subdural hematoma -- bleeding in the brain seen in suspected victims of shaken baby syndrome.
Some medical experts say that nagging skepticism about the validity of abusive or non-accidental head trauma is not based on scientific findings or valid research, but rather is promulgated by criminal defense attorneys, their expert witnesses, and organizations like the Arizona Justice Project seeking to exonerate convicted parents and caregivers.
But the doubts raised have been persuasive enough to overturn convictions and commute lengthy prison sentences like Witt's.
Witt's ordeal started on the evening of June 1, 2000, when he was 18 years old. He had just dropped off his girlfriend, Maria Holt, at a Phoenix restaurant where she worked as a waitress. Her son, Steven, was asleep in the car seat.
The infant had been experiencing seizures after being prescribed a medication for flu-like symptoms, the Registry notes. When Witt noticed the baby was having trouble breathing and appeared to be seizing, he returned to the restaurant, picked up Holt, and drove to a nearby hospital.
The baby was revived, but eventually died after being taken off life support.
A 10-day trial ended with a 20-year sentence.
In 2008, the Arizona Justice Project agreed to take a look at Witt's case, and had several experts, including Guthkelch, review the medical and court records.