Monday, April 25, 2016
The case of Trudy Muñoz Rueda is a tragic one, no matter how you slice it. Munoz ran a daycare in Fairfax, Virginia. "At a widely watched trial, 45-year-old Trudy Muñoz Rueda was accused of violently shaking a 5-month-old in her home day care in 2009, causing serious brain injuries." The
doctors who examined the child found three things: blood under his skin, bleeding inside the eyes and swelling of the brain. Those symptoms have – for years – prompted a diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome.
Defense attorneys had argued that Trudy E. Munoz Rueda had not shaken the baby and that the concept of "shaken baby syndrome" was "junk science" that has not been proven by scientific evidence. The lawyers on both sides of the courtroom launched a battle of national experts on the issue, with the jury taking only five hours to side with those who say it is certainly possible to severely injure an infant merely by shaking the child.
But are those experts right?
“Genetic abnormalities, clotting disorders, some of the retinal hemorrhaging is even caused by efforts to resuscitate a child,” says Deirdre Enright, Director of the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia. She fears doctors are often ignoring things that could lead to another diagnosis.
“Blood work that looks unusual or the presence of an infection is ignored by doctors in favor of, ‘We have these three things. We’re calling this trauma.’”
Pediatric neuroradiologist Patrick Barnes, who used to testify for the prosecution in baby shaking cases, agrees.
Barnes, a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, looked at scans of the baby's head at the request of defense attorneys and came to a different conclusion: The baby had likely suffered from an infection that caused blood clots in the brain, leading to a series of strokes.
"All of the treating physicians simply assumed trauma and stopped looking for alternative explanations," Barnes wrote in a 2012 affidavit. "That is not sound science and cannot be the basis of a reliable prosecution."
Barnes is not alone.
Other doctors have also stepped forward to defend parents and caregivers, including George Nichols, the former state medical examiner of Kentucky, who made a surprising offer at a meeting for public defenders shortly after he retired in 1997.
"I said if they had a case in which I had testified that somebody had died as a result of Shaken Baby Syndrome alone, that they were to contact me and that I would now testify for a reversal," Nichols said. "Shaken Baby Syndrome is a belief system rather than an exercise in modern-day science."
Muñoz Rueda's fate will soon be in the hands of the Governor of Virginia, with the UVA Innocence Project planning to ask him for clemency. Last year the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia denied Muñoz Rueda's claim that she received ineffective assistance of counsel, decision upheld by the Fourth Circuit, with the Supreme Court subsequently declining to grant cert.