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Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013 12:00 am

Judge rejects retrial in ‘shaken baby’ case

Illinois Innocence Project files clemency petition in light of new research

Pamela Jacobazzi
A former day care worker accused in 1995 of killing an infant by shaking him was denied a retrial last week, dealing a rare setback to the Springfield-based Illinois Innocence Project.

DuPage County Circuit Judge Robert Kleeman on Sept. 20 declined to grant a retrial to Pamela Jacobazzi, 58, who has spent the past 14 years behind bars in the women’s prison in Lincoln. The Illinois Innocence Project, based at the University of Illinois Springfield, is working to free Jacobazzi because project staff believe she was convicted on faulty science.

In August 1994, Jacobazzi, then 39, operated a licensed day care at her home in Bartlett, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. Cynthia Czapski picked up her 10-month-old son, Matthew, from Jacobazzi’s care on Aug. 11, noticing that Matthew seemed to be asleep but wouldn’t wake up. Matthew remained essentially comatose until he died 16 months later on Dec. 19, 1995.

Jacobazzi was accused of shaking Matthew and causing what’s known as “shaken baby syndrome,” a trio of symptoms including brain bleeding, brain swelling and bleeding of the eyes. She was convicted in May 1999 and sentenced to 32 years in state prison.

Erica Nichols Cook, a staff attorney with the Illinois Innocence Project, believes Jacobazzi didn’t shake Matthew Czapski – that Matthew instead died from preexisting medical problems including the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, recurring infections and dehydration. Matthew had been sick several times before and during his time at Jacobazzi’s day care, but that information was not taken into account during his examination after becoming comatose. Jacobazzi’s legal team at the time didn’t bring up Matthew’s medical conditions during her original trial, either.

Erica Nichols Cook with the Illinois Innocence Project and Anthony Sassan, Jacobazzi’s new attorney, in September petitioned a DuPage County court for a retrial, presenting evidence from six unpaid medical experts who collectively refuted the “shaken baby” accusation against Jacobazzi. Among the six experts who testified on behalf of Jacobazzi in September was Dr. Jan Leestma of Chicago, a forensic neuropathologist who testified against Jacobazzi at her original trial. Leestma testified that the significance of Matthew’s preexisting medical conditions wasn’t known or understood at the time of Jacobazzi’s original trial.

Still, Dupage County judge Robert Kleeman denied Jacobazzi’s request for a retrial.

Nichols Cook said she was disappointed in the decision because it didn’t touch on whether “shaken baby syndrome” remains a credible theory in light of new scientific research.

“We presented compelling evidence that the pediatrician records were important and significant and shouldn’t have been ignored as trial strategy,” she said.

The decision is a rare setback for the Illinois Innocence Project, which has helped free six people from prison since 2003. Jacobazzi’s last hope is a clemency petition filed with Gov. Pat Quinn in April 2013. She previously applied for clemency under former governor Rod Blagojevich, who denied her petition in 2007.

Jacobazzi’s second petition mentions her otherwise unblemished 10-year record in child care, the ambiguity surrounding Matthew Czapski’s medical conditions, and the new research that has cast serious doubt on shaken baby syndrome.

The new research hasn’t become widely known, however, and shaken baby syndrome continues to be used by doctors and prosecutors across the U.S. to explain child deaths that may have other causes.

Cammie Kelly, 66, of Springfield, currently faces three counts of first degree murder in Sangamon County Circuit Court for the Jan. 20, 2011, death of 11-month-old Kaiden Gullidge of Rochester. An autopsy concluded Kaiden died of head injuries sustained at the day care Kelly operated at her apartment. Kelly’s attorney, John Rogers of St. Louis, could not be reached for comment before publication.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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