Friday, July 13, 2001 By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer
WEST CHESTER TWP. — A seminar here Thursday on shaken-baby syndrome was “historic,” one panelist said, because it marked the first time experts representing prosecution, defense, and medical perspectives participated together.
Elaine Whitfield Sharp, a lawyer who has consulted on more than 100 shaken baby cases including that of Louise Woodward, the British au pair who was convicted in the death of a Massachusetts child, said she knew of no other conference that had brought together the often adversarial points of view.
“This conference, I believe, is an historic event,” she said. “Just being here creates a dialogue … If we’re friends, we can do a lot more.”
Ms. Sharp was part of a panel of national experts, assembled by Butler County’s Human Services Council. The panel appeared before 150 child-care professionals, caseworkers, lawyers, medical personnel and members of the general public. The day-long seminar, held at the township’s new meeting hall behind the Marriott Hotel, was held in the wake of a rash of shaken-baby cases in Butler County. Several are set for trial in coming weeks.
Ironically, at least two panelists said the term, “shaken-baby syndrome,” has become so explosive that they hesitated to use it.
In spirited discussions, the presenters disagreed on many aspects of the topic, including whether scientific research on the syndrome is sufficient to support reliable criminal prosecutions.
“Until the issue of whether human, manual shaking alone can cause bleeding above the brain is scientifically resolved, I don’t think any case of so-called shaken-baby syndrome should be prosecuted,” Ms. Sharp said.
Some experts believe impact is required to cause the devastating head injuries considered characteristic of the syndrome.
But Brian K. Holmgren, a Tennessee prosecutor, said the debate for him is little more than semantics. He thinks the injuries that can result from violent shaking are well documented.
And to him, it doesn’t matter whether the child was shaken or slammed — either way is abuse.
That aspect of the debate also seemed pointless to audience member Kathy Smith, a Butler County woman who adopted a child that had been diagnosed as a shaken baby, and later died. “That’s what happened to my Ashley, and that’s just common sense.”
But Ms. Sharp said the question of shaking vs. impact is an important one to settle.
“If we convict people based on theories that aren’t scientifically reliable, what does that say about us as a society?” she asked. “If there must be impact, that opens up the possibility that accidental trauma, such as falls, could cause these injuries … and the prosecutors don’t want that. They want shaking to be the only cause so they can better show intent.”
Mr. Holmgren, however, asserts that research already is sufficient to show that “certain injuries can only occur by abusive mechanisms.”
“Show me how that injury got caused by some alternate means other than abuse,” he challenged.