Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015 12:01 am
Jury struggles to reach verdict in child death trial
Day care worker convicted of involuntary manslaughter
The trial of a day care worker accused of shaking a baby to death concluded this week with the jury convicting her of involuntary manslaughter after more than 12 hours of deliberations.
The case tested a controversial theory about certain child deaths, pitting conventional wisdom against a more nuanced alternative explanation. The conviction amounts to an endorsement of shaken baby syndrome and a blow to the movement set on disproving the theory.
Cammie Kelly, 68, of Springfield, was charged with aggravated battery and first-degree murder after 11-month-old Kaiden Gullidge of Rochester went unconscious at her home day care in 2011 and later died. Sangamon County State’s Attorney John Milhiser dismissed the aggravated battery charge before the trial’s closing arguments on Dec. 15. Kelly’s trial began Dec. 8 and concluded Dec. 16 with the verdict coming around 1 p.m.
The case revolves around the controversial theory of “shaken baby syndrome,” which is often used to explain child deaths with no other apparent cause. Although shaken baby syndrome is taught in some medical schools and is taken as gospel by many doctors, the theory has come under increased scrutiny, and there is no medical consensus on the underlying science. As a result, criminal trials like Kelly’s have repeatedly raised unanswered questions about the theory, with inconsistent outcomes.
On Jan. 18, 2011, Kaiden Gullidge collapsed unconscious at Cammie Kelly’s day care. There were no outward signs of abuse noted by paramedics, multiple doctors at St. John’s Hospital in Springfield or multiple doctors at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria. The only indications of possible trauma noted at the time were Kaiden’s unresponsive state and scans of his brain showing abnormal conditions. It wasn’t until Kaiden’s autopsy that bruises were first noted, after the investigation had already turned toward allegations of abuse.
Kaiden Gullidge was born on Jan. 22, 2010, which was six weeks and a day ahead of his March 6 due date. Kaiden’s mother, Rebecca Spengler of Rochester, elected to deliver Kaiden by cesarean section due to her hypertension and a pregnancy-specific condition known as preeclampsia. Kaiden spent the next 23 days in the neonatal intensive care unit at St. John’s Hospital in Springfield, including 24 hours on a breathing machine due to respiratory difficulties. He was discharged from the hospital on Feb. 14, 2010, with instructions that he be kept away from germ sources like supermarkets and children with colds. Over the next year, Kaiden went to the doctor several times for health problems, including chronic ear infections, fever, vomiting, respiratory problems, diarrhea and other issues.
For the prosecution at Cammie Kelly’s trial, Kaiden’s history of medical problems is irrelevant. For Kelly’s defense, however, that history is crucial to understanding Kaiden’s death.
Kelly first watched Kaiden on Jan. 17, 2011. It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and Kelly had planned to take the holiday off, according to her attorney. Spengler, Kaiden’s mother, testified that Kelly had agreed to watch Kaiden that day, so Spengler took the child to Kelly’s day care. No other children were present. Kelly watched Kaiden that day without incident, although Spengler testified at trial that Kelly said Kaiden acted differently than he had the week prior, when Spengler first took Kaiden to meet Kelly.
The next day, Jan. 18, 2011, Spengler took Kaiden to a wellness visit with a nutritionist at the Sangamon County Department of Public Health. That visit would become a critical point in Kelly’s trial nearly five years later. After the visit, Spengler dropped Kaiden off at Kelly’s day care, with plans to pick him up around 7:30 that evening, after she finished work.
Although Kelly did not testify at her trial, the prosecution showed a videotaped interview of Kelly conducted by two Springfield police detectives on Jan. 20, 2011. In the interview, Kelly said Kaiden had been inactive all day on Jan. 18. Kelly said Kaiden was irritable that day, possibly from an ear infection or his teething.
“When we did activities, he’d just sit there,” Kelly told the detectives in the video.
Two parents and a grandparent who took children to Kelly’s day care on Jan. 18 testified at her trial that everything seemed normal when they picked up their children between 5 and 6 p.m. One parent, Erin Davis of Springfield, testified that she noticed a new child, Kaiden, and tried to speak to him. Kaiden turned red and got upset, Davis said.
“He wasn’t feeling speaking to me at that particular time,” Davis said during her testimony last week.
Kelly told the detectives during her videotaped interview that she changed Kaiden’s diaper around 7:15 p.m. and was preparing Kaiden to be picked up when she set him on the ground and turned around to reach for his coat. When she turned back around, Kelly told the detectives, Kaiden was lying on the ground unconscious.
Kelly said she tried to wake the child up, but he didn’t respond. At the detectives’ suggestion, Kelly said she shook him “like you’d do to get someone’s attention,” miming a back-and-forth shaking motion.
“You didn’t shake him like that?” one detective asked, shaking a water bottle vigorously for effect.
“No,” Kelly said.
That section of the video would become the foundation in the prosecution’s theory that Kelly shook Kaiden so hard that she caused his death. Milhiser portrayed the shaking as violent, but John Rogers, Kelly’s attorney, questioned whether Kelly even shook the child or whether she only went along with the detectives’ suggestions.
In the video, Kelly told the detectives that she took Kaiden outside, hoping the cold air would revive him. When it didn’t work, she took him to the home of her neighbors, Nathan and Kim Bartos of Springfield. Kim Bartos, a nurse, performed CPR on Kaiden while Nathan Bartos called 9-1-1. Kelly, meanwhile, called Spengler and asked if Kaiden had ever passed out before. Spengler said he hadn’t.
Springfield police officer John Shea was the first officer to arrive at the scene, after the paramedics. He testified at trial that he didn’t suspect a crime had occurred until later, when he was getting a statement from Kelly. Shea testified that when he asked Kelly where the child collapsed, she pointed to a different spot than she had previously. Shea made no mention of that in his police report and only mentioned it for the first time at trial, prompting John Rogers, Kelly’s attorney, to question Shea about it.
“You were so suspicious about the switching proximity of the fall that you didn’t include it in your report?” Rogers asked.
“Yes,” Shea said, adding that he didn’t believe it was an investigation at the time.
“You didn’t do your job, did you?” Rogers fired back.
“No,” Shea said.
During closing arguments, Rogers stated that Shea is a liar, saying Shea collaborated with the prosecution to construct a false story that would support the prosecution’s case.
Kelly’s trial featured testimony from 12 doctors offering highly technical and sometimes conflicting testimony. At issue was whether the “triad” of shaken baby syndrome cases – brain swelling, brain bleeding and retinal bleeding – observed in Kaiden’s brain scans resulted from a clotted blood vessel or from shaking. Kaiden had a history of medical issues that the defense said points to a stroke, but the prosecution argued that Kaiden’s medical issues were inconsequential. The prosecution showed grisly photos from Kaiden’s autopsy, attempting to establish that his bruises and his other symptoms were evidence of abuse.
Dr. Channing Petrak, medical director of the Pediatric Resource Center in Peoria, examined Kaiden on Jan. 19. She didn’t notice bruises on Kaiden until the autopsy after his death on Jan. 20, but her testimony at Kelly’s trial originally implied that she based her suspicion of abuse on bruises from her Jan. 19 examination. John Rogers, Kelly’s defense attorney, grilled Petrak about the inconsistency, using it to imply that she sees every case as abuse regardless of the evidence.
Petrak is a polarizing figure in the controversy over shaken baby syndrome. Her organization, which is part of the University of Illinois College of Medicine, examines children in cases where abuse is suspected. She’s seen by prosecutors as an impartial evaluator, but defense attorneys see Petrak as part of an industry that profits from indiscriminately labeling cases as abuse.
Petrak previously testified for the prosecution in the 2012 Springfield case of Richard Britts, who was accused of shaking his daughter but later acquitted when his trial revealed that the girl’s symptoms – the triad common in all shaken baby syndrome cases – were caused by an apparent seizure.
The lack of a medical consensus on shaken baby syndrome was readily apparent at Kelly’s trial. Some of the 12 doctors, testifying for the prosecution, said they are certain Kaiden was abused. Dr. Scott Denton, who performed the autopsy, said he could only tell there was blunt force trauma. Still others, testifying for the defense, said Kaiden’s brain showed signs of previous clotting, which would point to a renewed clot and a resulting stroke as his cause of death.
Kaiden’s head circumference played a major part in the trial, with the defense claiming it was an unnoticed signal that a problem was developing. Head circumference is used in pediatrics as a development indicator, and measurements outside the normal range can point to medical issues.
Rogers asked witnesses to chart Kaiden’s head circumference measurements over time, showing that the child’s head grew rapidly over several visits. On the morning before Kaiden collapsed, his head circumference – measured by a nutritionist during a wellness visit – was nearly outside the normal range for his age. One of Rogers’ medical experts, Dr. Shaku Teas of River Forest, Illinois, testified that if Kaiden’s age was adjusted to account for his premature birth, his head circumference would have been well outside the normal range.
The prosecution argued that Kaiden’s “big head” wasn’t important.
Additionally, testimony in the trial came from two other medical professionals who aren’t doctors, three police officers and six other witnesses, for a total of 23 witnesses over six days. The non-medical testimony mainly touched on how Kelly reacted when Kaiden collapsed, her demeanor prior to the collapse and whether her statements to police constituted an admission of guilt.
About two hours into the jury deliberations, the jury asked to reexamine the evidence in sequestration. One juror asked for a definition of “reasonable doubt,” which is the standard of proof for convicting someone of a crime. Illinois law prohibits judges from offering a definition.
Six hours into the deliberations, the foreman sent a note to Sangamon County Presiding Judge John Belz saying they could not reach a verdict. Belz instructed them to keep deliberating.
The jury ultimately voted on Dec. 16 to convict Kelly of involuntary manslaughter, opting for that charge instead of the more serious charge of first degree murder. The difference between the two charges is whether the defendant acted intentionally or merely recklessly.
The jury was composed of eight white women and four white men. Kelly is African-American. One of the two alternates selected for the jury was African-American, but he did not weigh in on the verdict.
After the jury announced its verdict, Rogers told Belz that he would “take the case up,” possibly referring to an appeal, but Rogers told reporters he couldn’t comment until after Kelly’s sentencing hearing. Involuntary manslaughter carries a possible two- to five-year sentence, but it is a probationable offense, meaning Kelly could, at least in theory, face no jail time. Belz indicated that’s unlikely, however, when he revoked Kelly’s $100,000 bond on Milhiser’s motion. Rogers objected, saying Kelly had dutifully come to court for four years and wasn’t a flight risk. Belz, who served as both a prosecutor and defense attorney prior to becoming a judge, said Kelly no longer had the presumption of innocence on her side, adding that there is “a dead infant” in the case.
Kelly kept her composure as the verdict was announced, later comforting members of her family who began to cry. Rogers hugged Kelly before she was led away by sheriff’s deputies. She was not put in handcuffs, however, likely because she walks hunched over with a cane due to arthritis.
Kaiden’s mother, Rebecca Spengler of Rochester, spoke only briefly to reporters after the verdict, saying she was not ready to comment.
Kelly’s sentencing hearing is set for Feb. 5.
Contact Patrick Yeagle at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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