Wright and Doug Wright
Forgotten by Justice
Little Donovan Wright’s death was a tragedy. That tragedy was compounded by the dogmatic misdiagnosis of Shaken Baby Syndrome and the erroneous insistence of a pediatric ophthalmologist that he could reliably time the critical injury based on progression of brain swelling to exclude all but one suspect. The suspect—Donovan’s father, Doug Wright—was convicted of murdering his child based on the ophthalmologist’s testimony. >
Now the ophthalmologist
has changed his
mind. He acknowledges his testimony in Doug’s case was faulty,
he was wrong. But the doctor is unconcerned about Doug’s
the failure of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to bring Donovan’s
to justice—because he can’t remember either of them.
When Donovan Wright was born on December 28, 1995 in York, Pennsylvania, he already had two strikes against him. His parents, April Klinedinst and Doug Wright, were young and unmarried, and Donovan had no place to call home. After his birth, April took Donovan from York Hospital to her mother’s home, but two weeks later April’s mother asked both of them to leave. Doug’s parents took them in temporarily, but there simply was not enough room in the Wright home. On February 7, 1996, April and Donovan moved to a homeless shelter.
Shelter staff were concerned about April’s lack of parenting skills and her apparent failure to bond with her baby. She propped Donovan’s bottle with a pillow instead of holding him to feed him, and routinely left him in the care of other shelter residents, including strangers and the four children of another shelter resident who at 5, 6, 7 and 8 were too young to appropriately care for an infant. Another resident reported seeing April vigorously shaking Donovan to make him stop crying. Shelter staff noted that when Donovan “would get fussy, his mother would shake his foot and shake his leg and he would wince. . . . Her way of comforting him would be take his foot in her hand and just jiggle it back and forth.” Early in March, 1996 Donovan became ill, unable to hold down his formula. When he developed such difficulty breathing that he turned blue, shelter staff insisted that his mother take him to the emergency room. Donovan was hospitalized from March 4th to 9th for bronchitis with severe respiratory distress, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and streptococcus.
Throughout their stay at the shelter, April received written notices of rules violations, all related to her neglect of Donovan. The resident whose young children took care of Donovan moved out of the shelter while Donovan was hospitalized. At this point, April convinced Doug to get an apartment and try to make their relationship work for their child’s sake. Shelter workers who observed Doug during his visits with Donovan said father and child interacted well. They were encouraged Donovan would be living with his father. On March 17, 1996, the three moved into their own place.
Doug already had a job,
and April soon
found work in a restaurant. She arranged for the former shelter
whose four children had so often taken care of Donovan to provide
services. In mid-April, 1996, April was driving her father’s car
with Donovan in his infant seat when she lost control and
The car left 180 feet of skid marks and had to be towed from the scene,
but Donovan was not seen by a doctor, perhaps because his mother didn’t
have a driver’s license.
At Doug’s mother’s, Donovan was limp and could not be roused. He was taken to Hanover Hospital. Deeply comatose, Donovan required a respirator to breathe. Donovan was transferred to Hershey Medical Center, where he remained in a vegetative state for over a year. On June 12, 1997 by court order Donovan was removed from the ventilator and died.
Studies at both hospitals showed blunt force head trauma with a healing skull fracture on the left side of Donovan’s head, subdural hematomas on both sides of his head, a bruise of the left front of his brain, and retinal hemorrhages in both eyes. In addition, multiple healing rib fractures, torsion (twisting) injuries to bones in the knees and ankles and a healing injury of the left tibia (shinbone) were identified. Skull fractures cannot be reliably dated, but Donovan’s was not fresh because his scalp was not swollen over the fracture. His rib fractures dated to between the first week of April and the end of the first week of May. The twisting injuries to his knees and ankles cannot be reliably dated but were probably not fresh.
There was overwhelming evidence that Donovan had been subjected to multiple episodes of abuse over at minimum the two months prior to May 12, 1996, and that he had been hit—very hard—in the head at least a week before May 12th. His injuries are consistent with rebleeding into an old subdural hematoma, either spontaneously or because of a mild bump that went unnoticed. But doctors at Hershey Medical Center declared Donovan’s injuries were the result of violent shaking—Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS), a controversial diagnosis that holds shaking as the sole cause of retinal bleeding. In Donovan’s case, this diagnosis is preempted by both the evidence of blunt force trauma and the absence of other indicators of SBS—fingertip bruises, fresh rib fractures from squeezing, injury to the neck or witnessed shaking.
The doctors who diagnosed SBS stated dogmatically that the fatal shaking must have occurred within 8 to 12 hours before Donovan was admitted to the hospital. This timing was based on the progression of brain swelling that occurred in reaction to trauma. That left only one suspect: Doug Wright, Donovan’s father, who had cared for the child from 11:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. on May 12th. Such certainty made a more thorough investigation unnecessary. Doug Wright was charged with murder and was tried in July, 1998.
Testimony at trial by Dr. James MacManaway, a pediatric ophthalmologist at Hershey Medical Center, was unequivocal:
Q: ... [I]n your testimony, you indicated that you thought that the results you had seen would have had an immediate impact on an intellectual level of the child. Is that a fair statement of what you had thought?
A: That is – it depends on what you call immediate, but there should be a rapid change in the patient’s neurologic status, ability to hold its head up, response to sound or touch, things like that.
Q: Okay. Can you put any time frame on that? Are you able to do that?
A: It is my opinion that given the severe retinal hemorrhages and macular detachment, the brain would have been subjected to those same forces and the child should have had very rapid loss of – changes in his neurologic status. I think loss of consciousness should have happened very quickly, whether it was ten minutes or half an hour. I think an hour at most. These are estimates.
This was pivotal testimony. It ruled out anyone else. The jury convicted Doug Wright. He was sentenced to 20 to 40 years in prison and his conviction was affirmed on appeal.
In 1999 a babysitter in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania was charged with abusing—specifically, violently shaking—a young child in her care. Dr. MacManaway examined the boy on July 14, 1999 and found retinal hemorrhages and macular detachment in his left eye. His finding, as he testified at the babysitter’s trial in October, 2001, was that “to a reasonable degree of medical certainty the injuries were caused by non-accidental injury.” As in Doug Wright’s case, timing the injury was essential, to exclude everyone but the babysitter based on when the child was in her care.
Q: Can tractional macular detachments be timed precisely?
Q: And you said that rather emphatically. Why do you say it with such certainty?
A: The appearance of the retina and of the retinal hemorrhage is characteristic of non-accidental injury but the findings do not evolve in any predictable way meaning to say it looks like this 12 hours after injury and looks like this 24 hours after injury. There is nothing in the medical knowledge or medical literature to allow myself or any other opthalmologist to time the hemorrhage or the macular detachment in terms of how long after the injury. At a national meeting in April 2001 I attended a symposium on non-accidental injury and the consensus of the group was, no argument, was that it is impossible to time the hemorrhage. No one can do that.
. . . No one has studied what happens and how long after an animal or child or whatever has injuries. So the science has not been done to determine how the injuries evolve over time to be able to date them.
When Dr. MacManaway was reminded of his testimony in Doug Wright’s case—handed a certified copy of the transcript—he stated, “My conclusions at that time were based on some personal experience as well as the conclusions in this paper, New England Journal of Medicine in June 1998.”
Q: What steps have you done now that you have changed your mind to go back and rectify the situation?
A: . . . You are asking me to compare one thing which I know today to something which I vaguely remember. I cannot answer that question.<>The jury acquitted the babysitter. Doug Wright is still in prison. The real circumstances of Donovan's death remain uninvestigated. Who is going to go back and rectify this situation?