Dec 2016

U of Michigan Law School Receives $250k Grant for Shaken Baby Cases

law schoolThe University of Michigan’s law school is set to receive approximately $250,000 in federal grant money to implement a team that will look further into several shaken baby syndrome cases (“SBS”), which are increasingly be referred to by a new title – Abusive Head Trauma cases.

The Innocence Clinic at the law school investigates convictions in criminal cases where there is the suggestion of a wrongful conviction or some specific flaw or injustice during investigation or at trial. The Innocence Clinic team has further invested in researching child abuse allegations and convictions. The organization intends to use the money to reevaluate those convicted in shaken baby cases. The award will also be used to support defense efforts of those who were wrongfully convicted.

There are two purposes for the money’s intent:

  • To locate a consultant off-site who will act as a fellow for the organization
  • To employ experts who can appropriately evaluate shaken baby cases

Last year, in People v Ackley, 497 Mich 381 (2015), the Michigan’s Supreme Court voted to overturn one conviction of a man from Calhoun County accused of shaken baby syndrome. The Supreme Court held that his lawyers provided ineffective assistance of counsel and otherwise violated his legal rights by failing to present a more formidable challenge to the evidence in the case. In particular, the defense failed to hire, consult with, and present an expert in opposition to the Prosecutor’s experts. Specific they found error from:

Trial counsel’s failure to investigate adequately and to attempt to secure suitable expert assistance in the preparation and presentation of his defense. Expert testimony was critical in this case to explain whether the cause of the child’s death was intentional or accidental. Defense counsel’s failure to attempt to engage a single expert witness to rebut the prosecution’s expert testimony, or to attempt to consult an expert with the scientific training to support the defense theory of the case, fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, and there was a reasonable probability that this error affected the outcome of the trial. Accordingly, defendant was entitled to a new trial.

Interestingly, the Supreme Court seemed to call into question the entire spectrum of shaken baby prosecutions and their reliability when the opinion went on to note that the defense failure relating to experts was particularly egregious “in light of the prominent controversy within the medical community regarding the reliability of SBS/AHT diagnoses.”

The Supreme Court concluded that given that shaken baby syndrome cases involve such “substantial contradiction in a given area of expertise,” counsel’s failure to engage “expert testimony rebutting the state’s expert testimony” and to become “versed in [the] technical subject matter” most critical to the case resulted in two things: a defense theory without objective, expert testimonial support, and a defense counsel insufficiently equipped to challenge the prosecution’s experts because he possessed only Dr. Hunter’s reluctant and admittedly ill-suited input as his guide.

The Innocence Project believes that there may yet still be many cases of wrongfully convicted individuals for shaken baby and chid sex abuse cases, and hopes to assist those with due justice.

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