Brief but interesting article, with links, by Radley Balko on the changing medical consensus (and the lag in the legal consensus) about "shaken baby syndrome," or SBS. Some of the points raised:
- Symptoms that prosecutors have argued are proof of SBS are now known to occur because of other causes, including falls, infections, and reactions to vaccinations.
- Doctors used to think that classic SBS symptoms presented immediately after shaking, so that the person who was with the child when it died was certain to be guilty of manslaughter or even murder. New research shows that the symptoms may take 3 days to set in.
- New research also shows that shaking without an accompanying head injury produces less serious bleeding than was previously believed.
- "I shook the baby to try to wake him up" has been taken as evidence of guilt.
I'm interested in the lag between scientific findings and their acceptance in other circles -- legal circles being one or the most important. Balko notes:
In other words, there are almost certainly a significant number of innocent people in prison today who were wrongly convicted of shaking a baby to death. The problem is that there are also likely a number of guilty people who, nevertheless, shouldn't have been convicted on the basis of science-based testimony we now know to be false. The task will be convincing both the courts and the public to risk freeing actual child killers in order to free the innocent people convicted with flawed medical testimony...
This whole controversy speaks to a fundamental tension between science and law. Science moves along a slow trajectory from inquiry toward certainty. While the courts have been eager to embrace new science—particularly forensic science—at the trial level, they're reluctant to revisit those cases when the science changes.
Very interesting, especially for every parent who's ever worried that taking the baby to the emergency room after a fall might get him accused of child abuse...