Wisconsin State Journal

Edmunds murder conviction tossed
January 31, 2008

Twelve years after she was sent to prison on charges of shaking a baby to death, a former Waunakee day-care provider should get a new trial, a state appeals court ruled Thursday.

The court vacated the conviction of Audrey Edmunds for first-degree reckless homicide stemming from the death of a 7-month-old girl in her care.

New evidence in the case "shows that there has been a shift in mainstream medical opinion since Edmunds' trial as to the cause of the types of injuries Natalie (Beard) suffered," the three-judge panel unanimously ruled.
AudreyEdmunds - March 2007
AP Photo
Audrey Edmunds, March 2007

Thursday's decision adds to the growing international controversy over "shaken-baby syndrome."

Some medical experts believe children suffer a unique set of injuries when they are shaken. Other medical experts say the same injuries can be caused by nonviolent means, including illness, accidental bumps to the head or choking on food or liquids.

Edmunds, 46, has steadfastly maintained her innocence. Her attorney, Keith Findley, co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, said he plans to petition Dane County Circuit Judge Daniel Moeser "as soon as possible" for Edmunds to be freed "pending further resolution" of the case.

The 4th District Court of Appeals ruling "was the right decision and it was the just decision," Findley said.

Experts testify
At trial, Edmunds testified Natalie was crying and refused to take a bottle after her parents, Cynthia and Tom Beard, dropped her off on the morning of Oct. 16, 1995. Edmunds testified that Natalie was sitting in her car seat with a propped bottle when she became unresponsive, and Edmunds called 911. The baby died a short time later at UW Hospital. Her parents testified Natalie was acting normally when she was left with Edmunds.

Medical experts testifying for the defense in an evidentiary hearing last year said the injuries that caused Natalie's death cannot definitively be attributed to shaking. Even if shaking caused the injuries, one expert said, it could've occurred hours before Natalie was dropped off at Edmunds' house.

Medical experts for the prosecution continued to insist Natalie's injuries were inflicted by shaking and would likely have occurred just before she became unresponsive.

Among those testifying for the defense last year was Dr. Robert Huntington III, the pathologist in the case. He told Moeser that based on another patient he examined at UW Hospital, he no longer was confident the injuries Natalie suffered were inflicted soon before her death and could've occurred many hours earlier.

In March, Moeser denied Edmunds' motion for a new trial. He ruled "the prosecution's expert witnesses ... effectively countered the defense experts' theories and possible explanations" for the injuries to Natalie's eyes and bleeding on the brain.

But the appeals court found that since Edmunds' conviction in 1996, there has been a "fierce disagreement between forensic pathologists, who now question whether the symptoms Natalie displayed indicate intentional head trauma, and pediatricians, who largely adhere to the science as present at Edmunds's trial."

Edmunds' longtime friend, Shelley Murphy, of Waunakee, said she had "goose bumps" over the news that Edmunds' conviction was overturned. For more than a decade, Murphy has been shuttling Edmunds' three school-age daughters to visit Edmunds in prison. Edmunds has been serving an 18-year term at Burke Correctional Institution and was scheduled for mandatory release in February 2009. Thursday's decision vacates her conviction and sentence.

Bitter victory
The ruling is a bitter victory, said Murphy, one of about 40 people from the Waunakee area who've attended hearings, corresponded with Edmunds and visited her in prison since the case began.

"It'll be great if she gets exonerated," Murphy said. "But she still will have spent 12 years in jail — a place she should've never been."

Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard said it's too soon to say whether his office will retry Edmunds. It's up to the state Department of Justice to decide whether to appeal Thursday's decision to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and up to the high court whether to accept the petition if it's filed, Blanchard said.

"We do not get the question of what this office will do until the appellate process, whatever it consists of, is done," Blanchard said.

Justice Department spokesman Kevin St. John said his agency is reviewing the question and has 30 days to file a petition. Blanchard wouldn't say whether he will oppose releasing Edmunds. "We will respond in court to any pleadings filed in court," he said.

Wrong standard
In its decision, the appeals court found Moeser used the wrong standard in deciding whether Edmunds deserved a new trial. Moeser "weighed the evidence and concluded that the State's evidence was stronger," Judge Charles Dykman wrote.

But Dykman said Moeser should've determined whether a jury, after hearing both the new evidence and the old, would've convicted Edmunds. "We conclude that the record establishes that there is reasonable probability that a jury ... would have a reasonable doubt as to Edmunds's guilt," he wrote.

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