The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ordered a new trial for a man convicted of violently shaking his girlfriend’s toddler in 2007, the second ruling in six weeks that vacated guilty verdicts in shaken-baby cases, reported the Boston Globe.
Taken together, the two court rulings underscored the court’s view that the “shaken-baby syndrome” diagnosis has become controversial, and defense lawyers who fail to challenge it could be depriving their clients of a fair trial.
In one case, the Supreme Judicial Court said the defense lawyer should have presented medical evidence challenging prosecutors who had depicted the child as a victim of shaken-baby syndrome.
In its unanimous ruling, the court found that jurors should have heard about the possibility that the 2-year-old’s catastrophic eye and brain injuries — which left her blind in one eye, cognitively impaired, and moving around in a wheelchair — could have been caused by a short fall of about 3 feet, like one that might have occurred from a kitchen stool.
Doubts have grown about shaken-baby syndrome among defense lawyers and some professional groups in recent years. Three state medical examiners in less than two years, for example, backed off earlier rulings that a baby died of shaken-baby syndrome, choosing instead after hearing from defense experts to say the cause was “undetermined.”
Several organizations submitted briefs, including The Innocence Network, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, and the Committee for Public Counsel Services.
Some medical organizations have pushed back, including the American Academy of Pediatrics,which fears marginal medical theories are gaining too much traction in the courts, allowing people who abuse infants to go free. In 2009, however, the academy did acknowledge the controversy brewing over the role that excessive shaking plays in creating extreme injuries.
The academy now tells doctors to use the term “abusive head trauma,” rather than shaken-baby syndrome, to indicate that traumatic blows to the head, not just shaking, are often behind the brain swelling and eye damage that afflict some 1,000 children each year, often causing permanent neurological damage if not death, the group said.
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