For reasons that aren’t clear, it seemed as if the “Shaken Baby Syndrome” had been thoroughly debunked and, like its predecessor, the Satanic Cult Hysteria, as best reflected in the outrageous McMartin Preschool prosecutions, somehow faded out of the legal system as another of our horribly misguided leaps into the abyss. Sorry. It’s not gone. While the name has been changed a bit to “Abusive Head Trauma,” it’s still very much with us.
The Syndrome, a new documentary by director/producer Meryl Goldsmith and investigative reporter Susan Goldsmith, provides a deep dive into its origins, its promoters and, of course, the fact that it is based entirely on flawed science that has managed to grip the imagination of the legal system and public, neither of which is well known for its high expectations of reason.
And unironically, one detail which is both shocking and yet wholly unsurprising is that the same physicians who were at the heart of the ritualistic cult hysteria went on to create this new “diagnosis” to explain the unexplainable, to provide a means to prosecute and convict based upon the mythology that a trio of symptoms* could not be explained except as the result of the violent shaking of a baby, homicide.
As The Syndrome goes on to show, not only is this untrue, as there is a lengthy laundry list of medical conditions that can produce the symptoms, as well as other physical causes (a fall, for example) that proponents of Shaken Baby Syndrome adamantly denied were possible, but that there was one huge and critical medical component to actual cases of Shaken Baby Syndrome that was utterly ignored: If someone violently shook a baby, there would be neck trauma, as the neck muscle is the “weak link” in a baby’s anatomy. Without neck damage, the one thing known with certainty is that the baby was not shaken.
The documentary offers, among others, the views of Dr. John Plunkett, a forensic pathologist, who has been one of the leading defense experts against the mythology of SBS. Dr. Plunkett was prosecuted, and acquitted, in Washington State for perjury for his testimony. He calls out the physicians who have made lucrative careers teaching prosecutors how to convict innocent defendants for a crime that didn’t occur.
It’s a long documentary, at almost an hour and a half, probably far lengthier than necessary for the purpose of making its point to lawyers, and incorporates the well-known melodrama of innocents being convicted, being interrogated, and in some instances, being acquitted or exonerated after the fallacy of the offense was demonstrated.
And yet, a quick name change from SBS to Abusive Head Trauma and the prosecutions continue. The Syndrome provides a good background for any lawyer defending against this charge. It gives the basic science that demonstrates why the mythology of the three tell-tale symptoms fails as proof of a crime. It explains the “white knight” attitude of physicians and prosecutors, who believe that they are doing it to save the children, and refuse to acknowledge that science precludes the efficacy of SBS.
But The Syndrome takes the issue deeper, showing how a cottage industry has been created around this religion, and how its proponents will go to extreme lengths to preserve its legal viability despite medical knowledge to the contrary. Buried within the movie are the perpetual problems of how the law permits, and embeds, junk science that comports with non-scientific “common sense.” It shows how zealous prosecutors will ignore contrary evidence, even ridicule or attack those who make their job of convicting harder, in their effort to let no dead child go unpunished.
Its length aside, this is a movie that every criminal defense lawyer, judge and prosecutor needs to see. There is nothing in The Syndrome that suggests in any way that harm to children is acceptable. This is no apologia for shaking a baby. But it effectively debunks the perpetuation of yet another forensic fraud that helps no child, and harms a great many by removing them from their good and loving parents. And it does what we so often see, reveals that another round of legal hysteria upon which prosecutions are grounded and convictions are obtained is nothing more than a fallacy.
There remain two problems that fall outside the realm of the criminal justice system, and clarified by The Syndrome. The first is that physicians are trained that the triad of symptoms is conclusive proof of child abuse, such that they are so deeply indoctrinated into the existence of Shaken Baby Syndrome that it doesn’t occur to them to question its existence. The second is that the “save the children” forces have pursued, and obtained, legislative compulsion to make this a mandatory reporting requirement, perpetuating the harm to parents and families regardless of any suggestion of abuse.
As Dr. Robert Block, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, asks, why only be concerned about the innocent parents imprisoned, “what about the babies who are killed?” Just as the legal system continues to embrace junk science, the medical community continues to adhere to junk legal rationalizations. It’s a toxic mix.
*The three symptoms of Shaken Baby Syndrome are:
- Subdural hematoma (blood on the protective layer of the brain)
- Cerebral edema (brain swelling)
- Retinal hemorrhage (bleeding in the back of the eye)