Shaken baby redux

Emily Bazelon (again) highlights among the more egregious convictions I’ve heard of for shaken baby syndrome.  Just try out this set of facts:

Steven Witt’s health problems started at birth. He was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, and he had trouble breathing. He got better and went home, but a few weeks later, his mother, who lived with Drayton Witt and later married him, brought the baby to the doctor because he’d been feverish and vomiting for three days. A few weeks later, Steven was sick again, with a fever and an upper respiratory infection. From then on, his mother was in frequent touch with the pediatrician.

A few days before Steven turned 4 months old, his mother took him to the emergency room because of what was by then his familiar fever, congestion, and vomiting. The doctors thought he had pneumonia, and they prescribed an antibiotic. After Steven took his first dose, his left eye couldn’t focus, he refused the bottle, and he lay limp. The next morning, he threw up and started shaking. Witt came home from work, and he and Steven’s mother rushed the baby to the hospital.

In the ER, Steven had a grand mal seizure. He spent the next six days in the hospital, with a fever and pupils that weren’t dilating normally. The doctors weren’t sure what was wrong, but tests showed more massive seizures, even though Steven was taking anti-seizure medication. His mother told the doctors that Steven had lost head control and couldn’t track with his eyes as he could before. Still, they sent the baby home with his parents before the week was up, on May 7, with antibiotics and the anti-seizure drug Phenobarbital.

According to Witt’s defense, Steven was never again a normal, healthy baby. Sometimes, his eyes twitched back and forth. He threw up repeatedly. His mother called the pediatrician and the hospital; his grandmother worried about his health; and a neighbor who was a nurse noticed the baby’s recurring problems. Steven’s mother brought him back to the pediatrician on May 26 because he’d again had a fever for days and had been projectile vomiting. She was told to continue the antibiotics and Phenobarbital, and she and the baby were sent home.

Got that?  And when he ends up in the ER a few days later, and ultimately dies, they decide it was from being shaken immediately prior to the ER visit.  Seriously?!  With that kind of medical history?!  Anyway, Bazelon highlights the fact that the doctor who invented the concept of Shaken Baby Syndrome thinks this is not a case of it and that the medical examiner from the case has recanted his testimony.

The criminal justice system hates admitting it was wrong, even when it so clearly was.  Bazelon’s conclusion:

Meanwhile, the district attorney who prosecuted Drayton Witt hasn’t responded to his petition for a hearing and a new trial. As these cases move through the courts, they are testing prosecutors’ and judges’ willingness to undo old verdicts. That’s never an easy step to take. But sometimes it’s the only one that is just.

Here’s hoping that the Arizona DA (and other DA’s in similar positions) prove they are more interested in justice than in promoting the idea that they are infallible (I’m not holding my breath).

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