Expert evidence in shaken baby syndrome cases in doubt

The reliance on expert witnesses in cases of child death or
serious injury is under scrutiny once more in an Appeal Court test
case due to finish next week.

The case, involving four people who say they were wrongly found
guilty of harming or killing their babies, has implications for
more than 90 other convictions in which the issue of shaken baby
syndrome was also raised.

In addition, the outcome could affect hundreds of other cases in
which a parent – usually the father – has been denied
access to a child on the basis of allegedly violent treatment.

The babies in the four cases under review presented with head
injuries and showed all or some of the features of brain swelling,
bleeding between the brain and the skull and bleeding in the retina
of the eyes, which the prosecution claimed were sure signs of
shaken baby syndrome.

But Michael Mansfield QC said that in 2001, the year following
the last of the four convictions, a series of research papers which
reappraised the theory of the syndrome began to emerge.

“There is now serious disagreement between reputable
experts as to the mechanism of death and level of force needed to
cause it,” Mansfield told the court. “Natural causes
cannot be excluded as a reasonable and not a fanciful

He said that this disagreement meant all four carers’
convictions were unsafe and should be overturned.

“This is not back-room biology by a few cranks,” he
said. “We say no one actually knows the level of force
required to produce one or more of the triad of features

The case follows that of Angela Cannings, whose convictions for
murdering her two baby sons were quashed after judges ruled that no
one should be prosecuted solely on the basis of medical opinion
which was disputed between experts.

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