Sunday February 27,2011
By Lucy Johnston, Health Editor
FRESH questions have been raised over convictions for “shaken baby syndrome” after a ground-breaking study showed how similar brain symptoms can occur naturally.
Scores of parents have been prosecuted and many jailed for shaking their babies to death.
About 250 cases of shaken baby syndrome go to the courts in Britain every year.
But leading child pathologists found that two of the three brain injuries used to diagnose abuse, known as the triad, occur in cases where abuse can be discounted.
The injuries are bleeding on the brain, bleeding in the eye and swelling of brain tissue.
Dr Marta Cohen, from Sheffield Children’s Hospital, and Dr Irene Scheimberg, from the Royal London Hospital, say their evidence means prosecutors need more than brain bleeding to convict and that other signs of abuse ought to be present for a guilty verdict to be returned.
The doctors looked at 55 babies who had died of brain haemorrhages before or shortly after birth, many of whom showed no evidence of abuse because they were in hospital.
All the dead babies had two of the symptoms consistent with a diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome.
Dr Cohen and Dr Scheimberg concluded that many of these symptoms are common in newborns and could be caused by a traumatic birth or other unknown factors.
Dr Scheimberg said: “You can’t conclusively say that if a baby has the so-called triad it has been shaken. We have shown that haemorrhage is quite common in newborns.”
The doctors say in their paper, published in the journal Experimental Clinical Pathology, that many brain bleeds in the first weeks of life stop without any signs of ill health.
In some children, however, the bleeding can get worse and they show symptoms that might be mistaken for shaken baby syndrome.
The triad theory came to public attention in 1998 in the US trial of British au pair Louise Woodward, convicted of killing baby Matthew Eappen.
The research follows cases of mothers Angela Cannings, Sally Clark and Trupti Patel, who were all eventually cleared in cases that discredited medical experts.
Suzanne Holdsworth, 40, a babysitter jailed for life for battering a two-year-old boy to death, was cleared two years ago. The mother of two served three years behind bars before the Appeal Court ruled her conviction unsafe.
Bill Bache, a solicitor who has helped defend accused parents, said: “It is a long held belief that the triad of symptoms is a pointer to shaken baby syndrome. This research highlights the fact that this is only a theory which could be wrong.”