A New Jersey appellate court sided with two fathers accused of child abuse who argued the science behind shaken baby syndrome isn't sound. (Getty Images)
For half a century, doctors have blamed babies’ unexplained, sometimes fatal injuries on shaken baby syndrome, with hospitals reporting about 1,300 cases a year and hundreds of parents and caregivers getting prosecuted annually.
But the science behind it has increasingly come under suspicion, especially when there’s no obvious physical evidence of assault. A New Jersey appellate court Wednesday added to the growing resistance, siding with a lower court judge who declared shaken baby syndrome “junk science,” a ruling that barred prosecutors from bringing it up in the Middlesex County cases of two fathers who challenged their child abuse indictments.
Judge Greta Gooden Brown, writing for a three-judge panel that weighed the case, noted that prosecutors must show a theory is generally accepted within the medical and scientific community.
While shaken baby syndrome is generally accepted in pediatrics, it’s controversial in the biomechanics community, particularly when a baby shows no physical evidence of being assaulted, Gooden Brown wrote. Biomechanics scientists disagree on whether shaking alone can create forces strong enough to cause the intracranial trauma needed to diagnose the syndrome, which is also known as abusive head trauma, she added.
“Biomechanical testing has never proven the premise of SBS/AHT, despite the hypothesis being grounded in biomechanical principles,” Gooden Brown wrote.
Cody Mason, a managing attorney with the Office of the Public Defender, argued the case on behalf of one of the fathers and called the ruling “well-reasoned.”
“The Appellate Division and the Supreme Court have shown again and again that they value scientific reliability over expediency or accepting things just because they have been accepted for a long time. This opinion is another step in that direction,” Mason said.
The decision comes in the consolidated appeals of two fathers, Darryl Nieves and Michael Cifelli, who authorities accused of assaulting their children.
Nieves was charged with aggravated assault and endangering the welfare of a child after three incidents over a two-week period in February 2017, when his 11-month-old son became limp and appeared to lose consciousness. Cifelli was similarly charged after his 10-week-old son had to be hospitalized twice in December 2016 and January 2017 for vomiting and seizure-like behavior, according to the ruling.
The babies, both born premature, were found to have brain injuries and hemorrhages, but prosecutors in both cases couldn’t otherwise show the fathers assaulted the infants, the ruling says.
In a January 2022 decision, Judge Pedro J. Jimenez Jr., presiding over Nieves’ case, declared expert testimony on the syndrome not scientifically reliable and dismissed his indictment. In Cifelli’s case, Judge Benjamin S. Bucca Jr. barred prosecutors from presenting testimony on the syndrome, citing Jimenez’s ruling.
Jimenez said a shaken baby syndrome diagnosis often is made “by way of a process of elimination” of other possible causes of trauma. He said that made the syndrome “more conjecture than a diagnosis because it [was] an option embraced once a diagnostician runs out of diagnostic options.” Scientific testing also hasn’t been conclusive, he added.
Prosecutors appealed, arguing Jimenez erred in his decision.
The appeals court held a hearing last May, and in Wednesday’s ruling, Gooden Brown rejected prosecutors’ appeals and affirmed Jimenez’s and Bucca’s rulings.
“The evidence supports the finding that there is a real dispute in the larger medical and scientific community about the validity of shaking only SBS/AHT theory, despite its seeming acceptance in the pediatric medical community,” she wrote. “Where the underlying theory integrates multiple scientific disciplines, as here, the proponent must establish cross-disciplinary validation to establish reliability. The state failed to do that here.”
The lower court arguments in both cases occurred before trial and it’s unclear whether the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office will ask the state Supreme Court to review Wednesday’s ruling. A spokesperson for the prosecutor didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Shaken baby syndrome, first coined as whiplash shaken infant syndrome in the early 1970s, is cited as the most common cause of death and brain injury resulting from child abuse, according to the Postgraduate Medical Journal.
A diagnosis typically requires three symptoms — bleeding on the brain, bleeding in the eyes, and neurological injury. But signs also could include seizures, vomiting, lethargy, scalp swelling, neck or spinal cord injury, fractures or external injuries, and bruising.
Wednesday’s ruling applies to a “narrow subset” of head trauma during infancy where there are no signs of impact, Mason said.
“For parents and caretakers that are faced with these awful situations, it ensures that they’re not going to be prosecuted or have their children taken away based on what the court has recognized is an unproven hypothesis,” Mason said.
An earlier version of this story should have said the Postgraduate Medical Journal cited shaken baby syndrome as the most common cause of death and brain injury resulting from child abuse.
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