California Innocence Project

Shaken Baby Syndrome

Shaken Baby Syndrome, or SBS, is a brain injury diagnosed in infants and toddlers who are injured or die as a result of forceful shaking.  Shaken baby syndrome symptoms include vomiting, breathing problem, paralysis, and/or seizures.  Internal injuries, such as bleeding in the brain and eyes, spinal cord damage, and bone fractures are also associated with shaken baby syndrome.  Typically, evidence of prior child abuse is found in cases of shaken baby syndrome.

While SBS was previously considered to be based on concrete science and analysis, new research has shown SBS has been dramatically overdiagnosed, leading to a large number of wrongful convictions.  This new research has also led to heated debate among SBS experts. Many symptoms previously considered to be indicative of shaken baby syndrome have been found in a number of cases where SBS is not present.  This has led to a shift in thinking and SBS is no longer automatically seen as the cause of the injuries.

For example, scientists now know that retinal hemorrhaging can occur in the absence of shaking; previously, retinal hemorrhage was considered absolute evidence of SBS.    Infants occasionally sustain bone fractures during childbirth, and many injuries can be sustained up to 72 hours before the infant’s death (“lucid interval”).  When seen in hospitals, these injuries were previously thought to be immediate symptoms and conclusive evidence of shaken baby syndrome.  Another issue concerns injuries caused by short falls.  Many experts say that short falls cannot cause death or injuries diagnosed as SBS.  However, recent studies have shown that short falls can cause head trauma that many have previously diagnose as the result of SBS.

One of the better known SBS wrongful convictions is the Audrey Edmunds case from Wisconsin.  In 1996, Edmunds was a neighborhood child care provider who was convicted of the shaking death of a neighbor’s infant child.  One day, Edmunds found the child to be unresponsive and took the child to the hospital.  Despite no signs of external injuries and no witnesses who saw her shake the infant, Edmunds was convicted and sentenced to 18 years in prison.   Prosecution experts had testified that the infant’s injuries could not have been accidental – they were equivalent to a major car crash.  However, the Wisconsin Innocence Project found experts who said that new research cast doubts about the trial evidence. In particular, the fatal head injuries could have been caused earlier when the child was out of Edmunds’ care.  In 2008, a Wisconsin Court of Appeals reversed her conviction based on the emergence of this new scientific evidence.

Prior to the shift in knowledge regarding shaken baby syndrome, many people were convicted of shaking a baby to death based on faulty forensic science.  The case of Ken Marsh is an example of a wrongful conviction put right because of changes in the state of SBS science.  In response to a brief filed by CIP, the District Attorney of San Diego had its own expert re-examine the evidence.  Their expert concluded he could not support the original analysis and the District Attorney’s office agreed to Marsh’s release after 20 years of imprisonment.   The debate among the SBS community will continue but it is important that inmates have the ability to re-investigate their cases to give them a chance to prove their innocence. 

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