Wisconsin State Journal

Shaken-baby notion defended

Friday, February 23, 2007
DEE J. HALL dhall@madison.com 608-252-6132

In tense, combative testimony, a medical witness for the state Thursday forcefully rejected recent studies that raise doubts about shaken baby syndrome.

The testimony in a Dane County courtroom came during Aurdey Edmunds' bid for a new trial based on new medical evidence that she claims renders invalid her 1996 conviction for the death of 7-month-old Natalie Beard.

The combative testimony of Dr. Betty Spivack reflects the divide among physicians in shaken-baby cases. One camp believes certain signs and symptoms are proof of abuse, while the other side argues that such indicators also can be seen in children who've been sick or had minor accidents.

At one point Thursday, Dane County Circuit Judge Daniel Moeser chastised Spivack for failing to directly answer questions posed by Edmunds' attorney, Keith Findley.

Spivack was twice asked to step away from the stand and was counseled to stop arguing with Edmunds' attorney.

Natalie became unresponsive while in Edmunds' care and died hours later on Oct. 16, 1995, after being admitted to UW Hospital. Edmunds, 45, has steadfastly denied harming the girl. She is represented by the Wisconsin Innocence Project.

Six physicians testified for Edmunds last month. Thursday's hearing was the start of 2 days of testimony for the prosecution, which is being handled by Dane County assistant district attorneys Mary Ellen Karst and Shelly Rusch.

Spivack painstakingly outlined why she believes recent studies that raise questions about shaken baby syndrome are flawed, including one that purported to show it would be impossible for a person to shake an infant hard enough to cause death. Spivack said other studies show the type of injuries seen in Natalie -- including hemorrhages in her eyes, brain swelling and bleeding on the brain -- are significantly correlated with inflicted rather than accidental head trauma.

She said her own review of the literature and Natalie's medical records lead her to agree with the prosecution's contention that Natalie died after being shaken by Edmunds, who ran a day-care center in her Waunakee home.

The baby died "as the result of an event that took place very shortly before the 911 call on the day she was admitted to the hospital," Spivack said. She rejected other possible causes posited by the defense -- including choking on baby formula or an old injury.

Spivack also acknowledged that she was recently fired from her position as assistant professor of pediatrics and pathology at the University of Louisville. She said she was never given a reason but speculated it could've been because of a medical leave she took last year.

Also testifying Thursday was Milwaukee County Medical Examiner Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen, who confirmed his opinions from a decade ago when he testified in Edmunds' trial. Jentzen said he has "attempted to keep up" with the literature and has seen nothing that would change his opinion that "the child died of shaken-impact syndrome," another term for shaken baby.

Under cross-examination by Findley, Jentzen acknowledged that within the National Association of Medical Examiners, where he serves as vice president of the board, what constitutes shaken-impact syndrome is a matter of debate. Jentzen and Spivack also said there's a small chance Natalie's injuries could be explained by other factors, but both characterized the likelihood as rare.

The hearing is expected to resume today with testimony from Dr. William Perloff, the retired head of pediatric intensive care at UW Hospital, and Dr. Alex Levin, a pediatrician and pediatric ophthalmologist from the University of Toronto.

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