Shaken Baby Syndrome: How Bad Science Can Result in False Confessions

For the past decade, the theory of shaken baby syndrome has been under attack. See here and here.  In January, the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Illinois granted Defendant Jennifer Del Prete’s habeas corpus petition where her conviction for first degree murder was based on faulty evidence of shaken baby syndrome.  Del Prete v. Thompson, 2014 WL 296094 (N.D. Ill. Jan. 27, 2014).  In a footnote to the opinion, the court even wrote that the testimony and evidence presented “arguably suggests that a claim of shaken baby syndrome is more an article of faith than a proposition of science.”

Incriminating statements in Del Prete illustrate how the power of supposed medical evidence can lead to false confessions.  The defendant was a child care worker.  She explained to law enforcement that the baby was not responding, and she picked her up and gave her a “very slight shake.”  Still getting no response, the defendant gave the child pats on the back to attempt to dislodge something possibly choking her and later administered CPR.  The detective employed confrontational interviewing techniques, brought up the concept of shaken baby syndrome, and told the defendant that her statements were not consistent with what the police had learned from doctors.  Upon hearing that her story did not match the medical evidence, the defendant cried and then said that she “couldn’t remember ‘exactly how things took place’ because of the increasing panic she was experiencing.”  Unable to provide an explanation, the defendant said, “[E]ven if I was panicked, aren’t I responsible? Am I going to go to jail?”  While the defendant did not make a confession, the pressure from the interrogation caused her to make assumptions about her own responsibility or culpability and made her question her own memory.

In a similar case, Judge Posner of the Seventh Circuit found that a defendant’s confession to shaking was “worthless as evidence.”  Posner found, “Not being a medical expert, Aleman could not contradict what was represented to him as settled medical opinion. He had shaken Joshua, albeit gently; but if medical opinion excluded any other possible cause of the child’s death, then, gentle as the shaking was, and innocently intended, it must have been the cause of death.  Aleman had no rational basis, given his ignorance of medical science, to deny that he had to have been the cause.”  Aleman v. Vill. of Hanover Park, 662 F.3d 897 (7th Cir. 2011).

The hypothesis of shaken baby syndrome is especially susceptible to false confessions because the hypothesis itself can only be validated or confirmed by a confession.  Interrogations often involve parents and caregivers in situations of extreme trauma and vulnerability, having experienced the death of a child only hours beforehand.  When faced with what is presented as absolute medical evidence that shaking is the only possible explanation, parents and caregivers give coerced compliant false confessions (“If you say so, I must have done it.”) and internalized false confessions (where a suspect becomes convinced that he or she has done it).  This risk of false confessions creates a circuitous problem—the presentation of unreliable medical evidence may cause a suspect to make false or overstated admissions, but even if this unreliable medical evidence is challenged at trial, the prosecution may still be able to rely on the admissions of the defendant to obtain a conviction.

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