TEXT ON SCREEN: October 7, 1997
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 10-16-97): DAN RATHER: A British nanny is charged with the murder of a baby.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 10-21-97): TED KOPPEL: Charged with causing the death of an infant by shaking him.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 10-21-97): GERRY LEONE: Ladies and gentlemen of the jury.
NARRATION: In 1997, the murder trial of British au pair Louise Woodward captivated audiences around the world.
ARCHIVAL: DEMONSTRATORS: What do we want: Justice!
MARTHA COAKLEY: An English nanny, you know, Mary Poppins, was on trial.
ARCHIVAL (CONUS, 11-5-97):
DEMONSTRATORS: What about the baby, justice for that baby?
BARRY SCHECK: Nothing gets people more upset than a child that has been injured.
ARCHIVAL (CONUS, 10-23-97):
LOUISE WODWARD (DURING TRIAL): He was, umm, gasping for breath.
NARRATION: Woodward was accused of a form of child abuse called shaken baby syndrome – a charge that scores of other caregivers face every year.
QUENTIN STONE: Their experts all said it was shaken baby. They gave different theories about what might have happened.
NARRATION: But today, the shaken baby diagnosis is under increasing scrutiny.
PATRICK BARNES: There is no doubt that errors have been made and injustices have resulted.
A SYNDROME ON TRIAL
LOUISE WOODWARD 911 CALL: Help, there’s a baby, he’s barely breathing. I think he choked on his vomit.
NARRATION: 8-month-old Matthew Eappen was with his au pair Louise Woodward when he was rushed to the hospital where authorities very quickly suspected child abuse.
MARTHA COAKLEY (CHIEF OF CHILD ABUSE PROTECTION UNIT, MIDDLESEX DISTRICT ATTORNEY’S OFFICE 1991-1997): We knew that the injuries this child had suffered, given that he was fine that morning and the time he was in the emergency room he was on death’s door, those had been inflicted injuries. They were severe, they were acute and they were not accidental. And the real issue was who could have done this to him?
NARRATION: They focused on the nanny, 18-year-old Woodward, and when Matthew died, charged her with murder.
ARCHIVAL (COURT TV): KURT FLEHINGER: We’re about to commence coverage of a murder case…
NARRATION: Seven months later, the “nanny murder trial” was covered gavel to gavel on Court TV. It dominated the headlines and sparked a nationwide debate on child care and working parents.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 10-21-97):
RADIO TALK SHOW: I wouldn’t put my children in the hands of an au pair and I do question the decision of the doctors Eappen.
NARRATION: Much of the public’s criticism was unfairly aimed at the baby’s mother, Deborah Eappen.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, NIGHTLINE, 10-21-97):
NEWS REPORT: Apparently the parents didn’t want a kid, now they don’t have a kid.
MARTHA COAKLEY: Not only had she lost her child, now she felt she was on trial.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 10-21-97):
NEWS REPORT: Deborah Eappen has suffered a barrage of hate mail blaming her for causing the tragedy by working and leaving her kids in the care of a teenager.
NARRATION: But while the media focused on the dangers of day care, the trial became a case study for this little-known condition called shaken baby syndrome.
MARTHA COAKLEY: Most people, I would warrant, before this trial had never heard of shaken baby. And it may have seemed to people like something we had made up.
NARRATION: The diagnosis wasn’t new. For decades, when doctors saw a child with a particular set of symptoms known as the triad – bleeding behind the eyes, bleeding on the brain, and brain swelling – they would conclude there was only one possible cause: shaking.
PATRICK BARNES (PEDIATRIC RADIOLOGIST, STANFORD UNIVERSITY MEDICAL CENTER): It seems like we were diagnosing child abuse and shaken baby syndrome often, at least maybe monthly.
NARRATION: Dr. Patrick Barnes is a pediatric radiologist who worked at Boston Children’s Hospital.
PATRICK BARNES: After I looked at Matthew’s imaging and I had seen those abnormalities, I did in fact think that this had to be shaken baby syndrome plus some impact to cause the fracture to the skull and the fracture to his arm.
ARCHIVAL (WOODWARD TRIAL, 10-7-97): PROSECUTOR: A result of the defendant forcefully slamming him against a hard object.
MARTHA COAKLEY: When Matthew was irritable, this was our theory, she got really angry at him, because she didn’t want to deal with it, and she shook him and we believed, cracked his head.
ARCHIVAL (WOODWARD TRIAL, 10-23-97): LAWYER: Did you ever hit Matthew Eappen? LOUISE WOODWARD: No.
NARRATION: Woodward consistently denied hurting the baby. Her defense team – paid for by the au pair agency – brought in experts who suggested alternate explanations for the baby’s injuries.
BARRY SCHECK (DEFENSE ATTORNEY FOR LOUISE WOODWARD): We had the best scientists available. We could bring them in. We could get them to analyze the evidence as quickly as possible.
NARRATION: They argued that the skull fracture may have been at least three weeks old when Matthew died. And that without witnesses, there was no way to prove what happened beyond a reasonable doubt.
ARCHIVAL (WOODWARD TRIAL):
BARRY SCHECK: Were you there?
PATRICK BARNES: In my opinion –
BARRY SCHECK: Were you there, doctor?
PATRICK BARNES: In my opinion, in my opinion, the imaging findings —
BARRY SCHECK: Doctor, I know what your opinion is.
PATRICK BARNES: On cross examination by Mr. Scheck, any question he asked that might even suggest a mechanism other than abuse, I was rejecting. I was adamant that it had to be child abuse, shaken baby syndrome with impact - could be nothing else.
ARCHIVAL (WOODWARD TRIAL): PATRICK BARNES: Hyper-acute shaken impact head injury seen —
NARRATION: After three days of deliberation, the jurors came back with their verdict:
ARCHIVAL (WOODWARD TRIAL, 10-31-97): JUDGE: Is the defendant guilty or not guilty? JURY: Guilty.
NARRATION: Guilty of 2nd degree murder.
ARCHIVAL (WOODWARD TRIAL, 10-31-97): LOUISE WOODWARD: I didn’t do anything.
NARRATION: The defense appealed to the trial judge … And days later, he made a surprising decision.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 11-10-97):
PETER JENNINGS: The judge in her case basically overruled the jury. First he reduced the charge to manslaughter, and then he reduced her sentence to the 279 days which she has already served.
NARRATION: The ruling divided the country, but the case’s legacy was clear: it had brought shaken baby syndrome into the national consciousness.
EMILY BAZELON (STAFF WRITER, NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE): I think this trial for the first time made a lot of people think about the dangers of getting so frustrated with a child that you might shake a baby really hard.
ARCHIVAL (The Doctors): DR. JIM SEARS: Parents just lose their cool. DR. TRAVIS STORK: Literally it can take one shake.
NARRATION: In July of 2000, the National Center on shaken baby syndrome was formed to help prevent this form of child abuse through training courses and public education campaigns.
ARCHIVAL: PSA: Whatever you do, never ever shake a baby COP: Babies don’t die from crying, they do die from being shaken.
NARRATION: In many cases, there are no external signs of abuse. But, the triad of symptoms has often been enough for police to make arrests and prosecutors to gain convictions.
EMILY BAZELON: In shaken baby syndrome cases, usually there are no witnesses. And so what you are talking about is a child who has collapsed, has brain damage or has died and usually the finger is being pointed at the last person who was with that child.
ARCHIVAL (WNYT13): ANCHOR: A Queensbury man is in jail tonight, accused of shaking and injuring his infant son.
ARCHIVAL (WUSA9, 1-24-10): ANCHOR: A daycare provider accused…
ARCHIVAL (ABC in Phoenix): ANCHOR: A five month old is dead…
ARCHIVAL (WFMZ, 7-9-14): ANCHOR: A man is behind bars, accused of violently shaking…
NARRATION: While caregivers were being arrested, one of the syndrome’s staunchest supporters couldn’t stop thinking about a particular moment from the Woodward trial.
PATRICK BARNES: On cross examination by Mr. Scheck he asked me, “Dr. Barnes, were you there?” And I wasn’t there. How did I know that this was what really happened? I was making the determination of child abuse just on the pictures, the images, without knowing anything else about the case.
NARRATION: Barnes says that moment made him re-examine everything he’d been taught about shaken baby syndrome.
PATRICK BARNES: Particularly when I started going to the literature outside of the box I was in, in the child abuse literature box, and looking at the science of traumatic head injury written by true specialists and experts in those fields. Then I began to be concerned that for the prior 15-20 years I may be wrong.
NARRATION: And Barnes wasn’t alone. Over the last decade, a number of studies have identified other conditions that can mimic the symptoms that make up the triad, and there’s growing concern that doctors may be diagnosing abuse too frequently.
But not everyone in the medical community agrees.
ROBERT BLOCK (OKLAHOMA CHIEF CHILD ABUSE EXAMINER 1989-2011): Nobody looks at a baby with those three things and says, ah ha, shaken baby syndrome.
NARRATION: Dr. Robert Block is a child abuse specialist and the former head of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
ROBERT BLOCK: We go through a very intensive history taking, which involves looking at the last 24 to 48 hours of this baby’s life. And then we do what’s called a differential diagnosis after doing a bunch of laboratory tests. Our job is to make sure that we’ve looked at every other possibility.
NARRATION: In 2009, Block was part of a team that recommended the name of the diagnosis be changed to the more general term, abusive head trauma. He says the diagnosis is supported by decades of research and the clinical experience of those who work directly with children.
ROBERT BLOCK: There are a few people who have generated opposing points of view for whatever reason. But, if you talk to child abuse pediatricians who work with these clinical cases all the time you will find that that opinion about the presence of shaken baby syndrome or abusive head trauma has not shifted one iota.
NARRATION: But the scientific debate is playing out, not only in medical journals, but in courtrooms where challenges to the diagnosis seem to be gaining momentum.
EMILY BAZELON: There have been experts for the prosecution, even state pathologists who have switched sides, who have said the medical evidence has changed and I can’t rule out an alternate explanation any more. That’s the kind of testimony that can be very persuasive to a court.
NARRATION: It was persuasive in the case of Quentin Stone, who was accused of fatally shaking one of his twin sons, Sam.
QUENTIN STONE: Their belief was that I’m a really, really nice guy who just snapped at a child that was crying too much.
NARRATION: Stone and his wife believe the baby’s injuries may have been caused by a fall from a bed a month earlier, but authorities insisted it was intentional abuse.
QUENTIN STONE: They gave different theories of what might have happened, from just simple shaking to one expert who said that I violently slammed him against a wall, even though there’s no bruising or anything like that on the outside.
NARRATION: Child protective services took his other two sons away from him, before he was criminally charged.
PATRICK BARNES: The burden of proof was always supposed to be on the prosecution to prove the defendant guilty – there is no doubt that that has been reversed where the defendant has to prove themself innocent. That’s against the constitution of the United States and yet it persists to this day.
NARRATION: Barnes now testify on behalf of the defense in cases where he finds reasonable doubt … and in May of 2014, his testimony helped acquit Quentin Stone of all charges.
But, more than a year after the verdict, Stone was still fighting the state to regain custody of his children, not allowed to live in the family home and only seeing his kids on supervised visits.
QUENTIN STONE: I don’t think there’s really a way to explain what it feels like to lose your entire family.
SARA STONE: There’s something wrong with this system, if somebody’s found innocent on all counts, and we’re still having to pursue a family law case.
NARRATION: Quentin Stone’s case is one of at least 200 that have fallen apart since 2001, according to an analysis by Northwestern and the Washington Post – charges dropped, defendants acquitted and convictions overturned – in some cases, after more than a decade behind bars.
ARCHIVAL (WROC, 12-16-14): ANCHOR: A judge has overturned the conviction of Rochester Daycare owner…
ROBERT BLOCK: I think it’s reasonable to worry and be as careful as we can to make sure that people who are convicted are appropriately convicted. But to talk about their conviction negates the fact that we really need to be talking about the children. It’s the children who are affected in each and every case. It’s the children who are devastated or killed.
NARRATION: The stakes remain high, and Patrick Barnes says the cost of getting it wrong can last a lifetime.
PATRICK BARNES: I do feel that my involvement for the Louise Woodward trial – going back 10, 15, maybe 20 years – that I assisted in misdiagnosing child abuse. I’ve been carrying that burden for a while. But I carry it in the context that, yes, abuse still exists and we have to do our duty to protect children, but to protect families. It’s a fine line, but we must do that job.