Wisconsin State Journal

Baby was shaken, doctor insists

Saturday, February 24, 2007
DEE J. HALL dhall@madison.com 608-252-6132

One of the physicians who cared for Natalie Beard at University (now UW) Hospital in the final hours of her life testified Friday he's certain that the 7-month-old was shaken to death and that the injury occurred shortly before she came to the hospital.

"She died from inflicted traumatic brain injury -- that is, she was shaken," said Dr. William Perloff, retired head of pediatric intensive care for the hospital. "In her case, there was evidence of her head hitting a surface."

Perloff's testimony came on the fourth day of a hearing in Dane County Circuit Court to determine whether Natalie's former day-care provider, Audrey Edmunds, deserves a new trial. The evidentiary hearing is scheduled to resume for a few hours on March 8 to hear testimony from a final witness for the state.

Edmunds, who's being represented by the Wisconsin Innocence Project, is seeking a new trial on the basis that medical research done since her conviction in 1996 raises doubt about how Natalie died. The 45-year-old mother of three has been imprisoned for a decade since being convicted of first-degree reckless homicide.

Natalie died on Oct. 16, 1995, after collapsing at Edmunds' Waunakee home. Edmunds has steadfastly maintained her innocence, and roughly two dozen supporters have crowded the courtroom throughout the proceedings.

Judge Daniel Moeser, who handed down Edmunds' 18-year sentence, is being asked to grant her a new trial. The state, led by Dane County Assistant District Attorneys Mary Ellen Karst and Shelly Rusch, is seeking to block the effort.

Perloff said his opinion about Natalie's death is based on the severity of her injuries and a "constellation" of signs associated with shaken-baby syndrome, including brain swelling, bleeding on the brain and hemorrhages in the eyes. Physicians testifying for Edmunds have challenged whether such a syndrome exists, and if it does, whether the injuries seen in Natalie would be the result.

But Perloff rejected various theories posited by some of the defense's six physician witnesses that illness or a minor accident, such as choking on formula, could've lead to Natalie's death. "I was struck by the parade of witnesses who seemed to be in effect throwing mud balls against the wall to see what might stick," he said.

Perloff also rejected the idea that Natalie could've been harmed before being dropped off at Edmunds' home. Edmunds became the main suspect after Perloff and Dane County forensic pathologist Dr. Robert Huntington III determined that because of the severity of her injuries, Natalie would've become unresponsive almost immediately after being injured.

However, Huntington testified last month that he no longer believes that, and he cited a 1999 case in which a 13-month-old was at University Hospital for 16 hours with undiagnosed severe head trauma before collapsing and dying.

Under questioning by Edmunds' attorney Keith Findley, Perloff acknowledged the circumstances of that case were puzzling but insisted it didn't change his mind about the timing of Natalie's injuries. Perloff also said he hadn't read several recent studies that raise questions about shaken-baby syndrome. In addition, he said he was unaware that one of the recent studies he relied on to bolster his opinions about shaken-baby syndrome had been rejected for publication in peer-reviewed journals.

Also testifying Friday was Dr. Alex Levin, an ophthalmologist and pediatrician from the University of Toronto. Levin said medical research since Edmunds' conviction actually has strengthened the case for shaken-baby syndrome rather than weakened it. With the extensive eye injuries Natalie had, "We don't really have any other cause for these types of findings," said Levin, who lectures widely on shaken-baby syndrome.

However, Levin acknowledged there are at least a handful of cases in which the classic signs of shaking appear in children who were injured in other ways.

The next session in the case is scheduled for March 8.

After the March hearing the defense may call rebuttal witnesses. Eventually lawyers will submit briefs and Dane County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Moeser, who presided over Edmunds' trial in 1996, will decide whether Edmunds deserves a new trial.

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