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Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013 12:01 am

It could happen to you…

How Shaken Baby Syndrome doubles a tragedy

Children get injured; children get sick. And more often than we might expect, they have medical conditions that even the parents may not be aware of and are yet to be diagnosed. It is every care provider’s fear that something will happen to a child who has been entrusted to his care.

So when something terrible and unexpected does happen to an infant in home care, we search for reasons and inevitably look for someone at fault. In her book, It Happened To Audrey, It Could Happen To You: A Terrifying Journey from Loving Mom To  Accused Baby Killer, Audrey Edmunds, with the help of journalist Jill Wellington, tells the horrifying story of her conviction for killing an infant left in her care. This story of the use of Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS) to convict the “regular middle class soccer mom” with three daughters of her own involves a major debate across this country about issues of science, forensics and the law. Audrey spends 11 years in prison before her conviction is overturned with the help of the Wisconsin Innocence Project.

One fall morning in Waunakee, Wis., Audrey is entrusted with the ongoing care of her neighbor’s infant daughter, Natalie. She leaves the room while Natalie sucks from a bottle of formula. When she returns, the baby appears to have choked on the liquid. Audrey screams for help and tries to awaken the child. The baby eventually dies.

The pathologist finds bleeding in the brain and eyes, leading doctors to what has since become a controversial diagnosis of “Shaken Baby Syndrome,” which meant, in the words of those who believe in the syndrome, “the injuries were so severe they had to be caused by some intentional force equal to an automobile accident or a fall from a two-story building.”

Since Audrey is the last one to care for the child, she is arrested and charged with first-degree reckless homicide. The irony of that charge occurring on the baby’s first birthday is among the many details that pervades her compelling narrative. Audrey describes, for example, how investigators attempt to extort negative testimony about her from friends and relatives and how Audrey’s account of the events are manipulated during the trial to demonstrate how she could have killed Natalie.

She describes her years in prison following conviction, and the continuing attempts to prove her innocence. She chronicles the details of her meals, her cellmates’ personalities, the harshness of prison with a total breakdown of privacy, the loss of her father, her divorce, and the searing deprivation of not sharing in the lives of her three daughters as they grow up.

This personal journey is told within the larger context of the story of Audrey’s long wrangle through a labyrinthine legal system that refuses to face a need to review new questions and pursue justice until 11 years after her conviction. Finally, with the assistance of attorney Keith Findley and students of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, evidence was produced to show that the credibility of Shaken Baby Syndrome had been fundamentally questioned due to the growing medical belief that shaking a baby cannot produce the triad of symptoms the baby exhibited in Audrey’s case. Further, medical investigations pointed to other causes – particularly pre-existing genetic conditions – that could have contributed to the symptoms that produced unexpected brain and retinal trauma, and internal bleeding.

Audrey Edmunds’ story is gripping and well written and has local relevance as evidenced by IT’s recent coverage of the UIS Illinois Innocence Project’s involvement in the ongoing case of Pamela Jacobazzi, who has been in prison since 1999 for a similar Shaken Baby Syndrome charge.

Larry Golden is the founding director of the UIS Illinois Innocence Project and an Emeritus Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies. Contact: lgold1@uis.edu

Audrey Edmunds will speak about her case at University of Illinois Springfield, Tuesday, Nov. 12, at 6:30 p.m. in Conference Room G of the Public Affairs Center. She will have a book-signing immediately following her presentation. The event is sponsored by the UIS Illinois Innocence Project. Ms. Edmunds will also speak at noon at the University of Illinois College of Law in Champaign on Wednesday, Nov. 13.
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