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Innocence Clinic gets grant to tackle child abuse cases

Babies exposed to opioids in the womb may suffer from Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, especially in rural areas
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The clinic will take on more cases involving Shaken Baby Syndrome

Some parents and caretakers in prison for child abuse may get their cases reopened if the University of Michigan Innocence Clinicbelieves they were wrongfully convicted for inducing “shaken baby syndrome."

SBS is when a child sustains serious, possibly even deadly, head trauma after being violently shaken. It can cause internal bleeding in the brain and behind the eyes, as well as neck and spinal cord damage.   

But attorneys with the Innocence Clinic, as well as some medical experts, say SBS may be misunderstood and misdiagnosed – possibly putting innocent people in prison for abuse they never committed. They argue that other incidents – like a small fall, a birth defect, or rare disorders – could be causing symptoms that doctors interpret as SBS.

Now, the Department of Justice is giving the Innocence Clinic a two-year, $250,000 grant to support the defense of such cases.

Attorneys with the clinic have already helped exonerate one person in a shaken baby syndrome case. In 2010, Julie Baumer was retried and found not guilty of abusing her infant nephew.

Yet most physicians who work with injured children believe that shaken baby syndrome is an accurate diagnosis that can be conclusively tied to abuse.  

“Other than a high-velocity motor vehicle collision, no alternative theories of causation for these findings are generally accepted,” researchers said in a recent article from theJournal of Pediatrics.

But what the Innocence Clinic wants to focus on is making sure defendants can at least present trial testimony from experts who disagree with those findings.

“So these shaken baby syndrome cases really appear to be in that category of shifting science, where juries at trial were told things that seemed uncontroversial,” says Imran Syed, who’s the Assistant Director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic. “But really there’s a lot of controversy involved.

“And really the most important thing, at least from our perspective as lawyers, isn’t who’s right or wrong. It’s did both sides get aired out in trial? Because our [state] supreme court ruled last year that in an SBS case, both sides have the right to present their side of the debate, and let the jury decide who they believe is more credible: was it an accident, or was it intentional abuse?

“And in the vast majority of these cases that we look at, there are no defense experts. The jury only hears one side of the case.”

Syed says they’ve already taken on several additional SBS cases in Michigan and are in the process of evaluating more. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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