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Civil rights suit shows police, witness failures in murder case

Halfway into a 20-year sentence for murder, Jennifer Del Prete was released on bond in 2014 after a judge found she had demonstrated her "actual innocence" of the crime she was convicted of. She had been convicted of violently shaking a child in her care at a day care center. That alleged shaking caused so-called "shaken baby syndrome," neurological evidence of abuse. Unfortunately, it appears that the science behind "shaken baby syndrome" is, as the judge put it, "highly suspect."

The case against Del Prete now appears to be so factually weak that she is suing the local police for intentionally framing her. The prosecution's expert witness, a pediatrician, concluded that the child was the victim of "shaken baby syndrome" even though she had never performed a physical examination. The child was already suffering from chronic subdural hematomas, which could easily explain the neurological evidence. The medical examiner who did the autopsy openly questioned the "shaken baby" diagnosis -- but his report was never turned over to the defense as was constitutionally required.

This is an important issue. The 1963 Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland established that police and prosecutors are constitutionally required to turn over any and all evidence that could be beneficial to the defense's case. The state is not supposed to win criminal trials by trickery, but by establishing that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

In this case, the Brady violation was relatively incidental to the appeal. The judge wrote that there was "abundant doubt, not merely reasonable doubt, regarding Del Prete's guilt." Moreover, he found that the "shaken baby syndrome" diagnosis, in this case at least, was "highly suspect."

Interestingly, the judge went on to say that "shaken baby syndrome" is doubtful in general. Considering the current state of knowledge, such a diagnosis is "more an article of faith than a proposition of science."

In discussing the case in 2014, Slate listed numerous other defendants who have been convicted based on a diagnosis of "shaken baby syndrome." Not all of their cases suffer from such obvious police and prosecution errors, but many of them may still involve wrongful convictions.

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