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No More Shaken Babies

December 6, 2007 permalink

Over the past two decades there have been many cases of parents accused of abuse or homicide on the basis of shaken baby syndrome. Testimony by Michael Pollanen to the Goudge Inquiry suggests that this condition belongs in the junk science category. English courts have already rejected the syndrome. While reversal of criminal convictions is possible, no adoptions will be undone to right two decades of wrongs.



The Globe and Mail

MD casts doubt on shaken baby syndrome


The deaths of 142 Ontario babies since 1986 were attributed to a cause many scientists now believe has been discredited - shaken baby syndrome - the province's top forensic pathologist testified yesterday.

Michael Pollanen told Mr. Justice Stephen Goudge that skepticism about SBS is so great that he should consider urging a review of the cases when he produces his report next spring.

Dr. Pollanen said he did not know how many of the 142 cases were investigated as suspicious deaths, resulting in criminal charges, convictions or the seizure of siblings from the parents of the pediatric victims.

"To be very straightforward, this would generate a lot of controversy in the community... because it is very polarized," Dr. Pollanen said.

The inquiry was launched last spring to look at how the province's former star pathologist, Charles Smith, was able to rise to the top of his profession despite a series of autopsy errors that led to miscarriages of justice.

However, Dr. Pollanen's revelation yesterday went beyond Dr. Smith to include the work of other pathologists who diagnosed SBS - a conclusion that was typically made upon the discovery of brain swelling and retinal bleeding combined with tissue damage to the linings of the brain.

Dr. Pollanen said that in recent years, a significant segment of the scientific community has come to believe that these symptoms can be found in babies who suffer an accidental blow to the head or an innocent fall.

He testified that Britain took the lead a couple of years ago, systematically re-examining a large number of SBS cases in what became known as the Goldsmith review.

"In the U.K., some of these convictions were quashed," he said. "The scope of the problem is not clear in Ontario. There needs to be some consideration of whether we should undertake something like the Goldsmith review."

Similar reviews may follow in other countries, Dr. Pollanen said.

"One of the factors to put fuel on the fire in the U.S. is that traditionally, sentences have been robust in these kind of cases - the death penalty or life imprisonment.

"In the face of what some people believe to be remarkable miscarriages of justice in some of these cases, it really has polarized groups of experts."

Dr. Pollanen also testified that:

A 1991 ruling by a judge of the Ontario Court of Justice who acquitted a 12-year-old of murdering a baby was "a masterful analysis of the case ... that was slightly ahead of its time." Dr. Pollanen was effectively endorsing the judge, Mr. Justice Patrick Dunn, who rejected Dr. Smith's testimony in acquitting the babysitter. The inquiry has heard that Dr. Smith often told colleagues that Judge Dunn later confided he regretted the acquittal and should instead have convicted the babysitter.

With not a single medical school in Canada offering forensic pathology training as an area of subspecialty, "I would say we have lagged about 40 years behind in comparison to other systems."

Forensic pathologists working in provincial coroners' systems are "prohibitively" underpaid in comparison to their counterparts in the private sector.

Defence counsel in Ontario will never have more than one or two forensic pathologists willing to work on homicides unless legal aid funding improves substantially and experts get over their revulsion for disputing conclusions by colleagues testifying for the Crown.

Advances in forensic pathology have made it even more clear that a Kingston baby known as Sharon definitely died of bites from a pit bull.

At the time, the fact that most of the injuries were to her neck, shoulders and head was considered highly unusual and suggestive of a homicidal stabbing. However, Dr. Pollanen said that recent studies have shown that, unlike attacks on adults, dogs frequently savage those portions of a child's anatomy.

Source: Globe and Mail