Convicted Murderer's Sentence Reversed After Lawyer Argues Shaken Baby Syndrome Isn't Real

A man convicted of the second-degree murder of his infant daughter will get a new day in court after appeals court judges agreed on October 29 that new research casts doubt on the belief that the medical condition used to convict him exists, the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal reported.

The man, Joshua Clark of Itawamba County, Mississippi, was convicted of murder in the second degree over the death of his four-month old daughter, Kyllie, who died in 2008.

Kyllie's death occurred after she and three other small children, including her twin brother, were left alone with Clark for several hours on January 5, 2008. The child's mother returned home to find her "limp and lifeless," the Daily Journal reported. Clark was initially sentenced to life in prison for his daughter's murder in 2010. In 2016 a new trial reduced his sentence to 40 years.

However, a panel of Mississippi Court of Appeals judges voted 7-3 to reverse Clark's conviction in a split decision released Tuesday. The ruling will return the case to circuit court for a new trial. The new evidence presented in Clark's appeal centered on the argument that the medical diagnosis used to convict him, shaken baby syndrome, has been discredited.

During Clark's second trial in September 2016, Dr. Karen Lakin testified as a medical expert for state prosecutors. Lakin said she believed Kyllie had suffered a fatal brain injury after being shaken violently. Physicians of the Le Bonheur Children's Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, also found injuries to Kyllie's brain, eyes, ribs and collar bones. Prosecutors believed these injuries to be evidence that she was a victim of shaken baby syndrome.

But Jim Waide, Clark's attorney, argued in his appeal in late 2018 that new strides in medical science had demonstrated that shaken baby syndrome was not a real condition.

Part of Waide's argument focused on a 2017 Swedish study that found "there is insufficient scientific evidence on which to assess the diagnostic accuracy ... in identifying traumatic shaking (very low-quality evidence)." The researchers also concluded that "limited scientific evidence" supported the belief that shaking actually caused the symptoms used to identify victims of shaken baby syndrome.

"It has now been showed as junk science," Waide told the court.

Tuesday's ruling said that Lakin had not provided supporting materials and that her testimony as an expert witness should not have been allowed in the court.

Waide told the Daily Journal that other cases involving shaken baby syndrome around Northern Mississippi may be affected by the outcome of Clark's case, especially ones in which Lakin served as an expert witness.

"This is a great day for us," Waide told the Daily Journal, "but Josh is not free yet. (The state) still has 14 days to ask the court for a rehearing. Or they could ask the (state) supreme court to hear it."

The existence of the condition is indeed controversial.

According to a fact sheet published by the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, shaken baby syndrome, also known as shaken impact syndrome or abusive head trauma, is a "serious form of abuse" that typically occurs when a parent or a caretaker violently shakes an infant out of frustration.

It can cause serious brain damage to a baby if they are shaken so hard that their brains make hard contact with their skull, and can ultimately cause death as well as conditions such as cerebral palsy, blindness and mental retardation.

Yet, as Waide argued, there is not yet consensus as to whether or not the syndrome even exists.

News organization The Chronicle of Social Change has written several articles about the "discredited" science that led to a California man's murder conviction. That man, Zavion Johnson, was released in 2017 largely due to skepticism over the validity of shaken baby syndrome. The publication also pointed toward a 2015 investigation by the Washington Post, which found 16 shaken baby syndrome murder convictions that had been overturned.

The Innocence Project, a non-profit organization of lawyers and legal experts that advocates for wrongly convicted prisoners, was in the process of reviewing 100 cases related to shaken baby syndrome, according to The Chronicle of Social Change.

The National Center on shaken baby syndrome, an organization that works to prevent infant abuse, still advocates for the classification of abusive head trauma as its own distinct syndrome. The organization provided a link to a joint statement signed in May 2018 by the The Society for Pediatric Radiology (SPR), European Society of Paediatric Radiology (ESPR), American Society of Pediatric Neuroradiology (ASPNR), American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and other groups arguing that abusive head trauma is still valid.

domestic violence victims
A mother and her child pose in a room in a temporary apartment for victims of domestic violence or in family breakdown in Paris on November 22, 2016. A man convicted of shaking his infant daughter to death may go free after a Mississippi Court of Appeals ruled that shaken baby syndrome was not a legitimate diagnosis Tuesday. GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP