The XX Factor

Shaken-Baby Syndrome, Questioned

When a baby is hurt or killed, what we tend to want most, other than a way to turn back the clock, is someone to blame. When a previously healthy infant shows up in an emergency room, or worse, a morgue, with the three telltale signs of Shaken-Baby Syndrome, experts thought for many years that blame could be easily assigned. If the “triad of subdural and retinal bleeding and brain swelling was present without a fracture or bruise” to indicate another explanation, the baby must have been shaken. And because these symptoms were believed to occur almost immediately, the last person to care for the baby was considered to be necessarily responsible for the abuse. It was that rare case where circumstantial evidence was considered definitive. And it may have put innocent people in jail.

In this week’s NYT Magazine , Slate ‘s Emily Bazelon shows how the medical establishment has, over the years, come to question the two conclusions about Shaken-Baby Syndrome: that it happened immediately, and that it was the only possible explanation for the injuries. Without those two assumptions, the truth of what happened to infants diagnosed with Shaken-Baby Syndrome is elusive. Emily profiles both the families of injured babies and their accused caregivers, unconvicted or, in two cases, freed only after years in jail and a second trial, like those law school “innocence projects” have obtained in cases where DNA evidence now demands a “not guilty” verdict. But there’s one key difference: New research and changed conclusions about Shaken-Baby Syndrome don’t prove anyone’s innocence. They prove only that the circumstantial evidence isn’t enough, leaving questions about whether abusers, or the innocent accused, are the ones walking free.