The Science Behind Shaken Baby Syndrome

The Houston Chronicle reported that a Harris County man was arrested and charged with capital murder in the death of his son. From what I gathered from the article, the autopsy revealed no external injuries and the cause of death was severe trauma to the brain which the Detectives believe is consistent with Shaken Baby Syndrome.

As a Harris County criminal defense lawyer, I do not feel it is appropriate to discuss this case given the early stages of the case, the seriousness of the charge, and the small amount of information contained in the Houston Chronicle article. The man is presumed innocent and we will leave it at that for now. Yet, I am curious to know what the general public thinks about Shaken Baby Syndrome.

Do people believe this phenomenon exists? Does our medical community and modern science know enough about the brain to make such a determination?

The National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome is the first place I looked. The site at http://don’ is the first web site I viewed. This is a very well-intended site meant to prevent child abuse. It is clear the organization is well organized and active. Similar to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, one cannot be at odds with the purpose and reason for existence of the organization. The National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome’s mission is to protect babies from abuse.

Yet, I found it unsettling that the site has a page titled “The Legal System’s Role in Facilitating Irresponsible Expert Testimony.” The purpose of this page was to accuse criminal lawyers of paying an expert to say the syndrome does not exist. Outright, out in the open propaganda.

I have used experts in many cases. You pay for the expert’s time and the expert gives you the opinion. You do not pay for the “opinion.”

So does anyone think Shaken Baby Syndrome does not exist? In a very interesting article, Shaken Baby Syndrome was put to the test. Michael Prange, Ph.D., Brittany Coats, B.S., Ann-Christine Duhaime M.D. and Susan Margulies, Ph.D., medical researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, tested the shaken baby hypothesis. They published their results last year in the Journal of Neurosurgery.

Models were used to simulate forces thought to cause shaken baby syndrome. The research showed that a grown man is not strong enough to shake a baby hard enough to tear brain tissue and cause bleeding. Wonder what inmates convicted of this charge think about that research?

Typically, shaken baby syndrome excludes injuries to the neck. The experiment showed that shaking the model baby would definitely cause injuries to the neck.

So I believe that is a major issue in a Shaken Baby Case. Was the baby’s neck injured? Medical research and common sense should require some injury to the baby’s neck to be consistent with violent shaking of a baby.

A shaken baby case is a hard case to prosecute because there is credible medical research that disputes the existence of such a phenomenon. On the other hand, these cases are even harder to defend because there is a deceased infant and loved ones and police want to hold someone responsible. Too many times there is a perfect scapegoat such as the babysitter or ill-tempered boyfriend.

Curious to know people’s thoughts…