Shaken baby syndrome: Dodgy science is sending parents to jail

The criminal justice system is targeting parents based on flawed science. That needs to stop.

Tasha Shelby (center) has spent a quarter of a century in prison, accused of killing her stepson based on the controversial diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome, which many experts now believe is dodgy science. Shelby is seen here with two volunteers helping her contest her sentencing.
Tasha Shelby, centre, has spent a quarter of a century in prison, accused of killing her stepson based on the controversial diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome, which many experts now believe is dodgy science. Shelby is seen here with two legal apprentices from the British nonprofit 3DC, which is helping her contest her sentencing [Photo: courtesy of 3DC)

Tasha Shelby, 47, has spent a quarter of a century — more than half her life — behind bars for a murder that the original medical examiner on the case says never happened. It was early morning on May 30, 1997, when two and a half year old Bryan Thompson was rushed to hospital after being discovered by his stepmother, Shelby, convulsing and gasping for breath. The child was placed on life support but was declared brain dead and died the following day.

Very quickly the doctors “diagnosed” Bryan, who was known as “Little” by his family, as having suffered from Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS). As the last adult to care for him, Shelby was immediately assumed to be the perpetrator. To the medical professionals and police, it was a straightforward case of cranial trauma. Shelby was convicted of capital murder in a Mississippi court in 2000 and sentenced to life without parole.

Dr Leroy Riddick, who died in 2021, carried out Bryan’s autopsy and was the state’s forensic pathologist on the case. In 2018, amid mounting evidence questioning the scientific basis of SBS, Riddick changed the death certificate from “homicide” to “accident” caused by a hereditary disorder. He also testified in a 2016 affidavit that, given developing medical understanding, Bryan’s injuries were more likely the result of a combination of factors including falling a short distance and a seizure.

Despite this, Shelby faces the rest of her life in prison and relies on the love of her family to maintain her strength. “I am completely dependent on people emotionally and spiritually to believe this will work out,” she told me.

Her paternal aunt, Penny Warner, has been a strong advocate for her niece’s release. “Sometimes when I stop and think about what has happened to Tasha and allow myself to really feel it, I literally cannot breathe,” Warner said. “My heart hurts. It is unfathomable to me that she is sitting in prison for a crime that never happened. Mississippi needs to right this wrong.”

It does. Yet, in August, the US government opposed an amicus brief in support of Shelby, filed by a group of SBS exonerees. Among them was Sabrina Butler, who was sentenced to die by the same Mississippi legal system, following the death of her nine-month-old son in 1989. In 1995, Butler became the first woman on death row in the US to be exonerated, after her son’s medical notes revealed a rare genetic condition that emulated symptoms inaccurately attributed to SBS.

“Tasha is innocent,” Shelby’s lawyer Valena Beety, a professor of law at Arizona State University and deputy director of the Academy for Justice, said. “The state has taken 25 years away from this woman. This has been a horrible mistake by the system, and it is time for this tragedy to end.”

However, Shelby’s case also raises more fundamental questions at the intersection of law and medicine. The theory of SBS rests on the presentation of what is known as the “triad” of symptoms: a blood clot in the brain, bleeding within the blood vessels of the retina and a swelling of the brain. For those who still believe in SBS, if an infant suffers from these symptoms, the last adult to care for the child is automatically assumed to have caused those injuries.

In effect, SBS is not a medical diagnosis. Instead, it places doctors in the position of stating that an individual has committed a crime based on scant evidence.

Tasha’s case was potentially compounded by Mississippi’s mandatory reporting law which provides immunity from all liability to medical professionals who report injuries to children as abuse. Did doctors overlook the possibility of an alternative cause of death?

Riddick is not the only person to have had second thoughts. Before he died in 2019, Dr Norman Guthkelch, the paediatric neurosurgeon credited with the SBS hypothesis 50 years ago, questioned the use of his theory in criminal cases. When asked by a defence team to review a case in which a father had been sentenced to die for shaking his own son to death, he concluded: “I wouldn’t hang a cat on the evidence of shaking, as presented.”  In echoes of Shelby’s case, the professionals, in that case, had ignored a history of seizures.

In the years since Shelby’s conviction, the science underpinning Guthkelch’s original theory has moved on. In a 2017 report in Forensic Science Reform, experts shared their findings that “natural conditions have been mischaracterised as the result of inflicted trauma. Research has discredited each of the indicators of SBS.” They urged the legal community to “be aware of current science to ensure fair trials and just verdicts”.

3DC, a non-profit founded by human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, published a preliminary study in January 2022, evaluating 94 published SBS cases in Britain. “We found that the evidence presented in court often came from a tiny cadre of zealous advocates of the theory, abandoning the notion that scientific analysis should be transparent,” said Stafford Smith.

Two 3DC legal apprentices from the United Kingdom who worked on that report, Emily Girvan-Dutton and Astrid Parrett, travelled to Mississippi to join the fight for justice for Shelby — and others. “Tasha’s case, is, sadly, not unique,” Emily said. “Innocent parents and carers across the globe are being imprisoned because of this junk science.” Astrid added: “Anyone could be in Tasha’s position now and that’s really scary.”

As she waits for the court to consider her case, Shelby keeps herself going with thoughts of a future beyond the confines of the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl. “I want to be what everyone in my life has been for me. I want to pay it forward.”

Her future – and that of others facing long prison terms, or even the death penalty, on the basis of SBS allegations – depends on states like Mississippi taking a fresh look at the science and reviewing processes that lead to an automatic assumption of intentional harm.

The legal, scientific and medical communities need to improve their knowledge of scientific developments, and take a more open approach to those who challenge the dogma of the SBS hypothesis. Finally, we need a full and transparent evaluation of the reliability of convictions based on SBS so that the tragedy of the death of a child is not compounded by the wrongful conviction of the last person to care for them.

For now, Shelby is surprised at her own resilience as she copes with life in prison. Quoting Bob Marley, she said: “You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.