Wisconsin State Journal

Finding Hope In Science
Audrey Edmunds Should Soon Learn Whether New Medical Doubt About Shaken Baby Syndrome Will Lead To A New Trial.

Thursday, February 22, 2007
DEE J. HALL dhall@madison.com 608-252-6132

Audrey Edmunds says life would have crushed her by now, if not for her faith in God -- and her belief that she will soon be reunited with her daughters.

The slim 45-year-old knows some people see her as a baby killer.

She tries, Edmunds said, to focus on her daughters and the people who believe in her -- supporters who hope an evidentiary hearing continuing today in Dane County Circuit Court will eventually clear Edmunds of her 1996 conviction of killing 7-month-old Natalie Beard.
In an appeal filed by the Wisconsin Innocence Project, Edmunds is challenging the conviction, contending the medical evidence used to convict is no longer valid.

Dane County prosecutors are fighting Edmunds' bid for a new trial. They plan to call five medical witnesses beginning today to rebut testimony that raised questions about whether Natalie died of "shaken baby syndrome."

Last month, six doctors testified in Edmunds' defense, including Dane County forensic pathologist Dr. Robert Huntington III, who reversed his 1996 testimony against Edmunds.

Advances in medical science and his own experience have left him uncertain about how or when Natalie was injured, Huntington testified. Citing studies done over the past 10 years, the other physicians testified Natalie's death could have been caused by an old injury, choking on baby formula, illness or other causes.

\ Prosecution witnesses
Edmunds is serving an 18-year prison sentence for killing Natalie, who became unresponsive soon after being dropped off at Edmunds' home day-care center in Waunakee on the morning of Oct. 16, 1995. She died later that day at UW Hospital.

The evidentiary hearing is designed to help Judge Daniel Moeser determine whether Edmunds deserves a new trial.

Connie Peterson, a friend of Edmunds' from Shoreview, Minn., drove five hours last month to hear the doctors testify on Edmunds' behalf. She also attended Edmunds' trial in 1996.

"She has always felt the medical evidence was there, it just needed to be presented in court," Peterson said, adding that she and the other supporters have never doubted Edmunds' innocence.

Beginning today, prosecutors will call five doctors to rebut the testimony of Huntington and the others.

According to a summary of their testimony, the physicians are expected to confirm that Natalie died of shaken baby syndrome, to reject other possible causes and to refute the contention by the defense witnesses that mainstream medicine is divided over whether the syndrome exists.

A key witness will be Dr. William Perloff, the retired head of pediatric intensive care at UW Hospital who examined Natalie before her death.

\ Daughters visit
Edmunds now spends her days doing clerical work for Badger State Industries, the prison company that makes furniture, license plates and other goods. Three times a week, she attends Bible studies. Although she was active in her Methodist church in Waunakee before her conviction, Edmunds said her faith has intensified during her incarceration, the first eight years of which were spent at the maximum-security Taycheedah Correctional Institution.

In her free time, Edmunds writes letters to her family and friends and keeps a "gratitude journal" on pieces of lined notebook paper she stores in folders in her room at the minimum-security Burke Correctional Institution in Waupun.

"I'm very blessed to have so many people supporting me," she said during an interview last week at the prison. "I'm very, very blessed. I try never to take that for granted."

About twice a month, her three girls -- Carrie, 15, Allison, 12 and Jenny, 11 -- visit her. Edmunds said she tries to keep the visits positive by talking about the things they'll do together when she's released.

But Edmunds' longtime friend, Shelley Murphy of Waunakee, who often brings the girls, said the sessions are "emotionally draining" for all involved. Murphy said Edmunds' oldest daughter has become uncomfortable around Edmunds, while the youngest two cling to her, "trying to suck up as much attention as they can."

Jenny, the youngest, can't remember a time when her mother wasn't in prison. She was 9 months old when Edmunds was convicted. "To see them all in so much pain is difficult," Murphy said.

Edmunds said her husband, Dave, divorced her after the state Parole Commission turned down her request for release about 4 1/2 years into her term. She's been rejected three times for parole and lost two appeals. Edmunds said her ex-husband, who lives in the Twin Cities area with their daughters, "just lost hope."

Natalie's parents, Tom Beard and Cindy Beard, declined to be interviewed for this story. They divorced in 2003.

At Edmunds' sentencing in February 1997, Cindy Beard faulted Edmunds for refusing to take responsibility for Natalie's death and for putting all families involved through the "cruel process" of police investigations and the trial. Beard said having the finger of blame for Natalie's death pointed at her and her husband -- as happened at the trial, when a defense witness testified that Natalie could have incurred a milder form of injury up to 12 hours before being brought to Edmunds' home -- was almost as painful as losing their only child.
"Audrey, you are the only one to blame," she said firmly.

\ Other convictions
Roughly two dozen Edmunds' supporters are expected to watch the proceedings today and Friday, including Murphy and other former neighbors from Waunakee, former co-workers, and her 80-year-old mother who lives in Hudson, where Edmunds grew up with her parents and three brothers.

Edmunds said she hopes the medical testimony, including Huntington's change of heart, will convince Moeser and the prosecutors to give her a second chance.

"I don't think they should turn their back when their coroner is saying they were wrong," Edmunds said. "That's very strong testimony."
Edmunds said she also draws hope from the fact that shaken-baby diagnoses have been successfully challenged in California, Kentucky, Florida and Great Britain.

"We're not asking these doctors to lie. We're not asking them to come up with a new theory for me," Edmunds said. "We're asking them to look up the evidence and figure out the truth."

\ Audrey Edmunds case at a glance

THE CASE: Dane County prosecutors will call five doctors beginning today in an effort to block Audrey Edmunds' request for a new trial. Edmunds was convicted in 1996 of shaking to death 7-month-old Natalie Beard.

AT ISSUE:The Wisconsin Innocence Project argues medical science no longer supports the evidence used to convict Edmunds.

PREVIOUS TESTIMONY: Six doctors testified last month that Natalie's death could've been caused by other factors, including accidental choking, illness, an old head injury or trauma suffered hours before she came to Edmunds' home.

EXPECTED TESTIMONY: The experts being called today are expected to confirm the finding that Natalie died of "shaken baby syndrome" and refute other theories of how she died.

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