In 1997, 19-year-old nanny Louise Woodward was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for the death of 8-month-old Matthew Eappen. The case became known as the “Nanny Murder Trial” and ended up introducing much of the U.S. to something called shaken baby syndrome, which is said to have caused Eappen’s death.

Shaken baby syndrome is recognized by a triad of symptoms (brain swelling, bleeding on the brain’s surface, and bleeding behind the eyes) and was, for many years, said to be incontrovertible proof that a baby had been abused.

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The first in a new New York Times video series called Retro Report, released Sunday, disputes that once accepted truth. In the video, Dr. Patrick Barnes, a neuroradiologist and key witness for the prosecution, notes that while he was sure Eappen’s symptoms were consistent with abuse at the time of the trial, he now has his doubts.

The New York Times reports:

But after the trial, he rethought his testimony and in effect became a penitent. He is now convinced that the diagnosis has been invoked too readily in criminal cases and that other causes might explain any bleeding and brain swelling. They include infections, earlier injuries from accidental falls and even strokes that occurred in utero. Other doctors who share his outlook question whether just shaking an infant, without resorting to other forms of violence, could in fact produce the triad’s telltale signs. Testing that thesis, though, may verge on the impossible: Who in the name of responsible science is about to shake a roomful of babies to see what happens?

In criminal cases, Barnes said in the video, “there is no doubt that errors have been made and injustices have resulted.”

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According to an investigation from the Washington Post and Northwestern University’s Medill Justice Project, of about 1,800 resolved cases involving shaken baby syndrome, about 1,600 resulted in conviction even though the science surrounding the syndrome is heavily disputed.

Woodward ended up serving 279 days in prison, but not before becoming an object of public ire — and maybe all for naught.

“There are cases where people on both sides, both of whom I admire equally, are barely able to speak to each other,” said Norman Guthkelch, the pediatric neurosurgeon who first noticed the condition in babies in a 2011 NPR interview, noting that even he recognizes that it is often misdiagnosed.

“If you get the diagnosis of fatal shaken baby syndrome wrong, potentially someone’s life will be terminated.”

Watch the documentary above, which is the first in a series of over 20 videos.


Contact the author at joanna@jezebel.com.