Wisconsin State Journal

New trial sought in shaken-baby case

DEE J. HALL dhall@madison.com
December 1, 2006

A former Waunakee baby sitter imprisoned for nearly 10 years after being convicted in the shaken-baby death of a 7- month-old girl is seeking a new trial, arguing that the scientific evidence used to convict her is no longer valid.

"Since Audrey Edmunds' trial . . . a large body of new scientific evidence has emerged that supports her claim of innocence," according to a brief seeking a new trial for Edmunds filed by attorneys and law students for the Wisconsin Innocence Project.

But Dane County Assistant District Attorney Gretchen Hayward, the original prosecutor in the case, argued in a brief filed Friday that Edmunds presents no truly new evidence and that it was her own testimony that convicted her.

"The defendant's testimony was often unbelievable," said Hayward, noting that she and Judge Daniel Moeser were involved in the original case, whereas "none of the lawyers or law students for the defendant were there and may therefore have a distorted view of the trial."

Edmunds' brief argues that medical experts no longer agree on what constitutes shaken- baby syndrome. It cites the fact that in 2005, the Court of Appeals in the United Kingdom reversed or reduced three convictions that were based on the type of medical evidence presented in the Edmunds case. The court found that the classic symptoms used for diagnosing the syndrome aren't always accurate.

"Unless we are sure of guilt, the dreadful possibility always remains that a mother . . . may find herself in prison for life . . . when she shouldn't be there at all," the court wrote.

Edmunds is scheduled to present her arguments before Moeser during two-day hearings on Jan. 25 and 26 and Feb. 22 and 23. However, the state argues that Edmunds has already raised most of the issues in earlier appeals and an evidentiary hearing is unnecessary.

Moeser sentenced Edmunds to 18 years in prison in 1997. She is incarcerated at Burke Correctional Center in Waupun.

Among the key pieces of evidence Edmunds, now 45, plans to present is testimony from Dr. Robert Huntington, the Dane County forensic pathologist who testified against her in 1996. Huntington, who conducted the autopsy of Natalie Beard after her death on Oct. 16, 1995, "now unequivocally rejects his prior opinion and its implications and will testify to that effect," according to the brief.

Huntington had testified that it was "highly probable" the injuries to Natalie's brain occurred within two hours of her arrival at UW Hospital - a time when Edmunds was watching her.

But Huntington no longer stands by that testimony, the brief said, because of a case he was involved with in 1999 that showed him "any injuries Natalie Beard might've suffered that led to her death could have been incurred long before she was dropped off with Ms. Edmunds."

According to the brief, "In the 1999 case, a 13-month-old girl was brought to UW Hospital after vomiting but with no history of trauma. She was admitted to the pediatric ward, and the resident who saw her described her as fussy and clingy but interactive and responsive - similar to Natalie Beard when her mother dropped her off at Edmunds' home on the morning of her death.

"At about 2 a.m. the following morning, some fifteen hours after being admitted to the hospital, a nurse found that the infant was unresponsive and that her right pupil was dilated and her left pupil was sluggish."

Soon after, the girl was brain dead. When Huntington performed the child's autopsy, the brief said, he found "the same injuries that he found in Natalie's autopsy."

As a result, "Dr. Huntington seriously questions the trial testimony of (a) prosecution expert . . . (who) asserted that an observer would have noticed a difference in Natalie immediately after her injury.

"Dr. Huntington notes that, 'Trained medical professionals, in an intensive care environment, were unable to discover that (the 13-month-old) had been critically injured for more than fifteen hours. It seems unlikely that an untrained observer, like a babysitter, would be able to recognize these symptoms when medical professionals could not," the brief said.

The state argued that Huntington's change in opinion "has little significance" since his testimony wasn't as strong as other medical witnesses.

In addition, Edmunds and her attorneys - Innocence Project co-directors Keith Findley and John Pray, Byron Lichstein of the UW Law School and students Nicole Moody, Steve Grunder and Molly Gena - plan to offer testimony from five other medical experts that:

The injuries to Natalie's brain could have been caused by an accidental injury, including choking.

The injuries also could have been caused by dehydration or other non-traumatic causes.

The results of the scan of Natalie's brain "do not indicate abuse."

"The recent change in the medical community's understanding of infant trauma . . . throws the science underlying Ms. Edmunds' conviction into grave doubt."

"We are saying you can't tell what happened," Findley said in an interview. "It could've been an accident. It could've been caused by somebody, or it could be natural. We can't tell, and neither can the state."

But the state argues that the other causes were ruled out a decade ago.

"The defendant has been provided with every possible right. After 10 years . . . it is time for society's and the victim's rights to prevail," Hayward wrote.

The Edmunds case isn't the only one in Wisconsin where the foundations of the science behind shaken-baby syndrome have been questioned.

Appleton defense attorney Mary Lou Robinson has won an acquittal and had charges dismissed in two shaken-baby cases in Wisconsin over the past 10 years by, as she describes it, "debunking" the medical testimony.

Dr. John Plunkett, a retired forensic pathologist who participated in one of Edmunds' earlier appeals, said his research shows there's no such thing as shaken-baby syndrome. For one thing, he said, it's virtually impossible for a person to move a baby fast enough to cause the brain injuries seen in such cases. And even if you could, Plunkett said, the infants would have significant neck injuries.

"I have never seen neck injuries in one of these cases - never," said Plunkett, who lives near the Twin Cities.

Dean Strang, Edmunds' appeal attorney, said that of the hundreds of cases he's handled as a defense lawyer, the Edmunds case has "haunted" him.

"I have always been left with a horrible feeling that an innocent woman is sitting in prison," Strang said.

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