July 29, 2009
Mother free in landmark baby shaking case
Rosemary Bennett, Social Affairs Correspondent
A young mother accused of shaking her baby son to death has walked free from court after a judge ordered jurors to clear her of manslaughter.
The judge said expert evidence was too divided for the jury to come to a conclusion as he threw out the charge. Legal experts said his decision would have serious implications for similar prosecutions up and down the country.
Although most medical experts still stand firmly behind Shaken Baby Syndrome, a minority of sceptical scientists fear that it is wrong, mistaking symptoms found in innocent accidents with deliberate killing.
Fatima Miah, 27, has faced two trials over the allegation that she shook her eight-month-old baby, Anas, to death in May 2007. She has always maintained he collapsed after falling off the sofa.
Judge Timothy Pontius said that, since there was a fundamental conflict of expert opinion on the cause of death, and no clear evidence to back one side or the other, he would have to direct the jury to enter a not guilty verdict.
"It is my firm view that - unusually - there is no evidence upon which this jury could find, to the extent they feel sure, that the expert opinion supporting the prosecution allegation of non-accidental death is to be preferred," he said.
Edward Brown QC, prosecuting, said the ruling would have implications for many other similar cases, and the scientific evidence used in shaken baby prosecutions.
"This case has been brought to the attention of the very highest level of the Crown Prosecution Service and we have to consider the nature of the ruling. We will have also to decide whether the ruling has any general application because there are cases up and down the country either pending or being heard or which have been heard," he said.
Ms Miah spent six weeks in custody after her initial arrest but has since been on bail. She had been described in court as a caring, dutiful wife and a loving mother.
The part-time dentist's receptionist from west London denied prosecution claims that she had shaken the boy in a fit of temper, leaving him with the brain injury from which he died.
Shaken Baby Syndrome came to prominence over a decade ago during the trial of Louise Woodward, the au pair who was found guilty of shaking baby Matthew Eappen to death. A series of reports said it was being under-diagnosed with up to 100 babies a year affected.
Most recently a child minder Keran Henderson, was jailed for the manslaughter of Maeve Sheppard, a baby in her care who a jury concluded had been shaken to death. Earlier this year, she left prison and is on probation having served half her sentence. She has always maintained her innocence.
At the heart of the case was the presence of three specific injuries. They were subdural haemorrhage, or bleeding on the brain, retinal haemorrhage or bleeding in the eye, and encephalopathy or swelling of brain tissue.
This triad of injuries would normally be used to provide a strong pointer that those injuries were not accidentally.
But defence experts said that the subdural haemorrhage was unlikely to have been caused by shaking and one said it may have been the result of a loss of oxygen caused by choking on vomit.
All the experts agreed, or were prepared to concede, that there had been cases in the past in which the triad of injuries had been caused by accidents. They were also unable to exclude the mothers account that the injuries were caused by a short fall.
New research due to be peer-reviewed this summer from biomechanics in the US will suggest bangs on the head from a fall are far more dangerous to infants than shaking. Researchers at the Wayne State University in Detroit used crash-test dummies and real corpses - including dead infants - to help them reach their conclusions.
Ms Miah left the court without making any comment. Two female jurers waved her goodbye after the decision and she was hugged by her junior defence barrister.
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