Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Justice and Junk Science

A common thread in many convictions is the use of discredited junk science. Here's an example from Colorado Springs: the tragic case of Deborah Wadle.

After two trials—the first resulted in a hung jury—Wadle was convicted of child abuse resulting in death. That conviction was overturned because of juror misconduct.

The evidence used to convict Wadle was a diagnosis of Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS). SBS has joined comparative lead bullet analysis as discredited junk science. In the forthcoming Washington Law Review, Deborah Tuerkheimer writes:

Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS) is, in essence, a medical diagnosis of murder, one based solely on the presence of a diagnostic triad: retinal bleeding, bleeding in the protective layer of the brain, and brain swelling.

New scientific research has cast doubt on the forensic significance of this triad, thereby undermining the foundations of thousands of SBS convictions. Outside the United States, this scientific evolution has prompted systemic reevaluations of the prosecutorial paradigm. Most recently, after a seventeen-month investigation costing $8.3 million, a Canadian commission recommended that all SBS cases be reviewed.

Turkheimer goes on to point out that despite new research, prosecutors in the United States continue to rely upon this discredited science, and US courts continue to affirm convictions gained through its use.

For Deborah Wadle, the discrediting of SBS comes too late. After her conviction was vacated, the DA continued to pursue her. Rather than face yet another trial, she accepted an Alford plea to a reduced charge of criminally negligent homicide, but she continues to maintain her innocence.

As Keith Findley, a clinical professor of law and co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project has said, “The system is sending people to prison based on findings of beyond a reasonable doubt when in many of the cases the only evidence is medical evidence on which many medical experts…have a substantial doubt. No critic of SBS theory wants anyone to get away with child abuse, but when the diagnosis becomes the entire basis for the prosecution, that’s problematic.”

I know of no plans by our DA to review the cases in Colorado Springs where SBS was central to gaining convictions. Those problematic convictions, like the ones that have relied on comparative lead bullet analysis, remain hidden from view and beyond scrutiny.

Seeking such scrutiny and the pursuit of Truth and Justice are goals of this week's Freedom Marches. Visit the national website supporting these events at The website for Colorado's event is at


Marcia McGuire said...

Wrongful convictions will continue due to arrogance of the judicial system. It would appear that the main focus is not on providing proper diagnosis for these children, which should be the priority. Any new scientific discovery that benefits the health and welfare of children doesn't seem to be a priority among some prosecutors and judges. Once again, it is their desire to convict and incarcerate which further harms the family nucleus.

Who does it benefit to dismiss concrete scientific evidence when it comes to the subject of SBS and its link to genetic, intrauterine or birth injuries? It benefits CPS, the courts, and foster or adoptive parents also unwilling to recognize the proper diagnosis, because it would not benefit THEM. This is the height of depravity.

Presently, there is no concern for honorable investigation to discover truth and separate child abuse cases from medical causes and trauma in Colorado and some other states. The 'lock 'em all up' mentality destroys entire families.

Ultimately, those wrongful convictions harm beyond repair.

In time, the courts are going to be forced to admit fallibility and work with the scientific community. It is inescapable.

As it stands today, it is the judicial system that champions judicial child abuse by demonizing innocent parents, caretakers and extended family members for life.

George said...

Just wondering, but how valid is opinion based on a "forthcoming" law review article that is not, as of of today, available on the Washington Law Review website or Lexis?

At this point, a posting based on a "forthcoming" article seems oddly familiar: perhaps it's a demonstration of precognition. Or perhaps it's the same process being used to review the Iranian election results...

At any rate, the expression of opinion in the absence of factual information is most usefully considered as a Rorschach test.

William Newmiller said...

George, your charge "precognition" is ludicrous. If you read my entry, you know the issue of SBS is not something that is "forthcoming"; rather, the legal analysis of its place in American jurisprudence is forthcoming. The science has been extensively reviewed in a 17-month $8.3 million dollar study in Canada--a study so convincing that our neighbors to the north are considering a review of all cases in which SBS played a part.

The use of junk science to gain convictions is not anything new. We've seen the devaluing of hair analysis, bite mark analysis, comparative lead bullet analysis, and recently in Florida the use of a trained dog with an accuracy rate of 54% to gain convictions.

Iranian elections and ink blots have nothing to do with the lack of validity that has been found with regard to SBS.

Debi Mahler said...

I have a son convicted of SBS in 1995, still serving time in Federal prison. He was 19 when they say he shook Kade to death. Dr. Di George confirmed, wtih 6 other experts, he died of DiGeroge's anomaly. I am over $350,000.00 in debt and nowhere toward getting him out and proven innocent to the Navy Board. I wish I could make his story, with all the written evidence, made public so someone would be forced into investigating his case further. Turkhiemer just confirmed what we said ten years ago. God, we need help. Byron still has 6 more years to do...for nothing.