Wisconsin State Journal

Shaken Baby Case Back After 10 Years

Witnesses Say Symptoms In The Infant's Death Have Been Linked To Other Causes.

Friday, January 26, 2007
DEE J. HALL dhall@madison.com 608-252-6132

When Audrey Edmunds went to prison 10 years ago, doctors who testified against her said they were certain that 7-month-old Natalie Beard was killed and that Edmunds was to blame.

On Thursday, the same Dane County Circuit Court judge who sentenced the Waunakee day-care provider to 18 years in prison heard testimony from three physicians rebutting the conclusion -- used to convict Edmunds -- that Natalie died of "shaken baby syndrome."

Natalie died not long after being dropped off at Edmunds' house in apparent good health on Oct. 16, 1995.

The experts said the symptoms they once thought were proof of shaken-baby syndrome -- hemorrhages and specific injuries to the brain and bleeding in the eyes -- have in the past decade been linked to dozens of other causes, including accidents, illness, infection, old injuries and congenital defects.

"There are no studies that substantiate that shaking and shaking only produces this triad of injuries," said Dr. Patrick Barnes, a pediatric neuroradiologist at Stanford University. He added later in the hearing, "I'm embarrassed to say I testified to that in the past."

Something as mundane as an ear infection -- which Natalie had shortly before her death -- could spread to the brain with life-threatening consequences, he said.

"A simple ear infection a week before this scan could be the cause of what you see here?" Wisconsin Innocence Project attorney Keith Findley asked, pointing to CT scans of Natalie's head.

"That's right," Barnes replied.

Innocence Project

Edmunds is represented by the University of Wisconsin Law School's Innocence Project, which is seeking to convince Judge Daniel Moeser to grant her a new trial. The prosecution is led by Dane County Assistant District Attorneys Mary Ellen Karst and Shelly Rusch.

Moeser heard the first of two days of testimony from defense experts this week, which will be followed by a two-day evidentiary hearing put on by the prosecution in late February.

Edmunds, a 45-year-old mother of three, has consistently maintained her innocence. As many as two dozen of her supporters packed the sixth-floor courtroom during the seven hours of testimony. Edmunds, whose hair was once stylish and blond, is now a simple brown shoulder-length cut tinged with gray.

Barnes said that for the first 15 years of his career he mostly testified against parents and day-care providers in shaken-baby cases, even writing a chapter in an influential textbook that detailed the classic signs of shaken babies.

But for the past 15 years, Barnes said, he mostly has testified for defendants because he's convinced the evidence now shows shaken-baby syndrome -- in the absence of an impact to the baby, such as hitting a wall -- is more myth than science. Better imaging has allowed physicians and scientists to see more of what goes on in the brain, he said.

"What we found when (magnetic resonance imaging) came along was that what we had previously been diagnosing (as shaken-baby syndrome) were wrong. We were wrong on the pattern of injury," he said, "and on the timing."

'To the other side'

Also testifying was Dr. George Nichols, a forensic pathologist from Louisville who served for 20 years as a medical examiner for Kentucky and who now runs his own medical-legal consulting firm. Nichols said he "went to the other side" after he was asked by a prosecutor in Kentucky to sit in on a shaken-baby case. He said he initially thought a defense witness, forensic pathologist Dr. John Plunkett of Minnesota, was a "first-class nut."

But Nichols said after reviewing the literature cited by Plunkett -- some of it written by neurologists and specialists in fields outside medicine such as biomechanics -- he changed his mind. Nichols said the literature showed, among other things, that if infants could be shaken hard enough to be injured or killed, they would have severe injuries to their necks -- injuries Natalie didn't have.

Ten years ago, Nichols said, he would've suspected Edmunds too, because Natalie was in apparent good health when dropped off and because of the nature of her injuries. But not now.

"What I was taught and what I accepted was there would be a shake and there would be an immediate loss of consciousness," Nichols said. "That is false."

Second Day of Hearing

More Doubt Raised In Baby's Death

Saturday, January 27, 2007
DEE J. HALL dhall@madison.com 608-252-6132

A Dane County forensic pathologist said Friday that he no longer stands by key testimony he gave in 1996 that helped put Audrey Edmunds in prison for allegedly shaking a baby to death.

Dr. Robert Huntington III, who conducted the autopsy on 7-month-old Natalie Beard, told Dane County Circuit Judge Daniel Moeser in powerful testimony that he no longer can say with certainty how or when the baby was injured. Edmunds, who has always maintained her innocence, is serving an 18-year sentence at Burke Correctional Institution in Waupun.

In 1996, Huntington's timing of the girl's injuries was an important piece of the prosecution's case against Edmunds, the Waunakee day-care provider who was caring for Natalie.

The baby, who had appeared healthy when left at Edmunds' home on the morning of Oct. 16, 1995, began gasping and choking after drinking formula. Shortly after emergency personnel arrived, her pulse and respiration stopped.

Huntington attributed the death to "shaken impact syndrome," also sometimes referred to as "shaken baby syndrome."

Huntington said his testimony was based on the common medical wisdom of the day, which was that the types of injuries found in Natalie's brain and eyes were proof she had been shaken and that the effects would have been immediate.

"Are you now comfortable with the testimony you offered in Audrey Edmunds' trial in 1996?" Wisconsin Innocence Project attorney Keith Findley asked.

"No. No, sir, I'm not," Huntington said.

Findley: "Are you still certain she was injured within two hours of the onset of her symptoms?"

Huntington: "No way."

Later Findley asked, "Do you believe there was some shaking?"

Answered Huntington: "I don't know."

The testimony came in the second day of a hearing to determine whether Edmunds, 45, deserves a new trial. Prosecutors Mary Ellen Karst and Shelly Rusch will present their case during a two-day hearing in late February.

Moeser heard testimony from five other physicians called by Findley who challenged the notion that the type of brain and eye injuries Natalie sustained are proof of shaking or abuse. All cited an old brain injury the baby had suffered and the choking incident as being factors in the girl's death.

Huntington said he began to doubt his testimony in the Edmunds case in 1999, when he encountered a baby at University Hospital in Madison who died after showing similar signs and symptoms to Natalie's.

The child was fussy and clingy but otherwise responsive but collapsed suddenly and died 16 hours after she had been admitted to the hospital. He said the experience -- and a review of the emerging medical literature at the time -- convinced him a child could have a "lucid interval" of hours, even days, after a serious injury.

All six physicians, including Huntington, agreed that medical knowledge about brain injuries, eye injuries and choking in infants had changed significantly since Edmunds was convicted.

"Most of us in 1995 would've testified along essentially similar lines ... We would've all agreed on shaking and we would've all agreed in the 'no lucid interval' and the whole bit," said Dr. Peter Stephens, a forensic pathologist from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Dr. John Galaznik, a pediatrician at the University of Alabama, said he recently re-read the 1972 study that kicked off the establishment of shaken-baby syndrome as a cause of death. "By today's standards," Galaznik said, "it was appalling."

Lamented Huntington: "As far as I'm concerned, this whole thing has become a whole lot less clear than it once was."

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