Defense debunks ‘shaken baby syndrome’ in Tacoma trial

Oct 13, 2014, 6:05 AM | Updated: 8:52 am

Not long after a 4-month-old boy came into the emergency room at a Tacoma hospital, doctors were sure his head injuries were the result of abuse. It happens all the time. The baby wouldn’t stop crying. The father was arrested and put on trial.

But also on trial is the diagnosis itself.

When doctors examined the baby in April 2013, they found a familiar triad of symptoms; retinal hemorrhage (bleeding in the eyes), subdural hematoma (blood on the brain) and cerebral edema (excess fluid on the brain.) When Jeremy Yerger was arrested, police say the father gave a conflicting statement, first admitting then denying he shook his infant son, adding, “I’m sure I did something to hurt him.”

One doctor told police it was a classic case of “shaken baby syndrome.”

But some child abuse experts now call that long-accepted diagnosis “bogus.” They claim that the force involved in shaking a baby differs only slightly from the forces to which an infant’s head is subjected in normal activities and accidental injury.

An expert in pediatric neuro-radiology testified for the defense last week in Yerger’s assault trial at the Pierce County Courthouse.

“It is inconclusive — whatever research model is used, that shaking can cause any component of the triad without impact unless the weak link is injured,” said Dr. Patrick Barnes with Stanford Medical Center. “And the weak link is the baby’s neck.”

In 1997, Barnes testified for the prosecution in the shaken baby trial of a 19-year-old British au pair, which gained worldwide attention. Barnes said he was “stunned” by the defense expertise, which led him to re-evaluate his position. With the advent of advanced imaging technology and evidence-based medicine, he changed his mind about shaken baby syndrome. He’s now a leading defense expert in cases across the U.S.

It’s estimated that more than 1,000 children in the U.S. suffer severe or fatal head trauma from child abuse every year. Seattle Children’s Hospital pediatrician and child abuse expert, Dr. Kenneth Feldman defended the diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome, although he conceded it is short on valid research.

“We don’t have good threshold information on how babies tissues respond to forces,” he said. “You can’t go out and experiment on the babies.”

Research has been done on monkeys and crash test dummies.

“Dummies aren’t babies and short of doing experiments on real, living babies, which is impossible and unethical, we can’t get an answer directly from bio-mechanics,” said Feldman.

On the witness stand, Stanford’s Barnes testified for the defense that there are what he called “mimics” to injury attributed to abuse.

“In other words, other conditions that are not abuse that can look like abuse.”

Some critics of shaken baby syndrome claim that accidental falls can mimic abuse.

“Even the child abuse literature recognizes that many of these conditions can be accidental,” added Barnes.

But Seattle Children’s Hospital pediatrician Rebecca Wiester said most falls do not result in the types of injuries seen with abusive head trauma (AHT.)

“It’s a whole different level of force, similar to automobile accidents, something that’s a very impressive event, it’s not tossing a baby up in the air or rocking a baby on your knee because, honestly, if that really accounted for those injuries we’d see those babies all day long in the emergency room, which we don’t,” said Wiester.

Instead of the commonly known phrase “shaken baby,” Wiester and Feldman now use “abusive head trauma.”

Critics say defenders of the diagnosis are running from the familiar phrase. The new terminology, adopted by the American Academy of Pediatrics, reflects the knowledge that a combination of shaking and blunt impact can cause injuries previous attributed to shaken baby syndrome.

One traditional assumption of shaken baby, or abusive head trauma, is that the symptoms immediately follow the injury, meaning that the last caregiver is usually responsible.

On the witness stand in Tacoma, Dr. Barnes reviewed CT scans and MRIs, revealing possible fractures of the injured baby’s skull.

“Trying to date these fractures (is) really difficult. Could it be older? Yes. Could it possibly date back to birth? Yes.”

Dr. Barnes told the Tacoma jury that the child, in this case, was likely injured in the birth process.

It’s estimated that one third of abusive head injury victims who develop symptoms escape without significant long term damage. According to his caregivers, the little boy in this case is doing well, 18 months since he was hospitalized, acting like a normal two year old.

One 2007 nationwide analysis of prosecutions alleging shaken baby revealed a conviction rate of 95-percent.

A court order prevents Yerger, 37, from seeing his son. The military veteran is charged with first degree child assault. A jury will decide if this is a case of shaken baby or “junk science.”

Local News

(Photo by Terry Pierson/The Press-Enterprise via Getty Images)...
KIRO Newsradio Newsdesk

KIRO Newsradio Headlines: Teacher shortage set to disrupt the oncoming school year

KIRO Newsradio Headlines brings you a selection of quick stories to catch up on your news in the morning of Aug. 8
10 hours ago
Sue Bird #10 of the Seattle Storm looks on during warm ups before the game against the Los Angeles ...
KIRO 7 News Staff

Sue Bird plays final regular season home game with Storm

Sunday was the final regular season home game for Seattle Storm legend and future WNBA Hall of Famer Sue Bird.
10 hours ago
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)...
Frank Sumrall

Fauci awarded with Hutch Award, will throw ceremonial first pitch Aug. 9

Fauci has served as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for nearly 40 years.
1 day ago
Follow @http://twitter.com/Mynorthwest...
MyNorthwest Staff

Meet Tucker, the Mariners’ new clubhouse dog

The Mariners went "outside the diamond" to acquire another major roster addition for their late-summer postseason push.
2 days ago
Sue Bird #10 of the Seattle Storm looks on during warm ups before the game against the Los Angeles ...
Tim Booth, Associated Press

Sue Bird at peace for what could be final game in Seattle

Seattle is currently the No. 4 seed ahead of Washington with a week left in the regular season.
2 days ago
Photo from the National Weather Service...
MyNorthwest Staff

Mini heat wave to hit Western Washington this weekend

A second smaller heat wave is set to start Aug. 6 after a record-breaking six days of 90-degree weather last week.
2 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Work at Zum Services...

Seattle Public Schools announces three-year contract with Zum

Seattle Public Schools just announced a three-year contract with a brand-new company to the Pacific Northwest to assist with their student transportation: Zum.
Swedish Cyberknife 900x506...

June is Men’s Health Month: Here’s Why It’s Important To Speak About Your Health

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men in the United States, on average, die five years earlier than women.
...

Anacortes – A Must Visit Summertime Destination

While Anacortes is certainly on the way to the San Juan Islands (SJI), it is not just a destination to get to the ferry… Anacortes is a destination in and of itself!
...

Ready for your 2022 Alaskan Adventure with Celebrity Cruises?

Celebrity Cruises SPONSORED — A round-trip Alaska cruise from Seattle is an amazing treat for you and a loved one. Not only are you able to see and explore some of the most incredible and visually appealing natural sights on the planet, but you’re also able to relax and re-energize while aboard a luxury cruise […]
...

Compassion International Is Determined to ‘Fill’ a Unique Type of Football ‘Stadium’

Compassion International SPONSORED — During this fall’s football season—and as the pandemic continues to impact the entire globe—one organization has been urging caring individuals to help it “fill” a unique type of “stadium” in order to make a lasting difference in the lives of many. Compassion International’s distinctive Fill the Stadium (FtS, fillthestadium.com) initiative provides […]
...

What are the Strongest, Greenest, Best Windows?

Lake Washington Windows & Doors SPONSORED — Fiberglass windows are an excellent choice for window replacement due to their fundamental strength and durability. There is no other type of window that lasts as long as fiberglass; so why go with anything else? Fiberglass windows are 8x stronger than vinyl, lower maintenance than wood, more thermally […]
Defense debunks ‘shaken baby syndrome’ in Tacoma trial