Medill Innocence Project investigation seeks brain scans
By Alison Flowers
Medill Innocence Project
Published: Aug. 28, 2012
Updated: Aug. 28, 2012, 9:02 p.m.
A federal judge on Tuesday blocked access to brain scans of a deceased infant, detailed medical images the Medill Innocence Project is seeking as part of its investigation of the first-degree murder conviction of an Illinois daycare worker who says she was wrongfully convicted.
In Chicago, U.S. District Court Judge Matthew F. Kennelly granted Northwestern University’s petition, on behalf of the Medill Innocence Project, to intervene in the case as a journalistic enterprise aiming to inform the public. But the judge denied the university’s motion to access medical records involved in the case. “Why should I disregard their privacy interests?” Kennelly asked at the hearing, referring to infant’s family. “It’s about as private as anything I can imagine.”
In the motion, the Medill Innocence Project sought medical records with the hope of learning more about the infant’s condition. The motion does not request access to the mother’s health records.
After the brief hearing, Eric S. Mattson, an attorney at Sidley Austin who represented Northwestern, said, “We think that it’s very important for lawsuits to take place in the public eye. That’s what we were trying to accomplish with this motion.”
Del Prete’s Chicago attorneys, Jodi Garvey and Pat Blegen, who had obtained by subpoena the infant’s medical records, supported Northwestern’s motion for access to the infant’s records but declined to give them to the Medill Innocence Project unless the judge formally allowed it. Northwestern last week submitted a motion to access the records. The Illinois Attorney General responded hours later by seeking a protective order to keep confidential the medical records of the mother and infant. Kennelly granted the state’s motion for the protective order.
Medill undergraduate students have been probing the shaken-baby syndrome case since last March as part of an investigative journalism class supported by the Medill Innocence Project. The case hinges on complex medical understanding of a 3 1/2-month-old infant’s condition when she lost consciousness under the supervision of former Romeoville, Ill., daycare worker Jennifer Del Prete in 2002. A Will County judge sentenced Del Prete to 20 years in prison in 2005 for allegedly shaking Isabella Zielinski, resulting in her death nearly a year later. Given medical advances over the past decade, the detailed medical images found in the MRI and CT scans could shed light on what caused Isabella’s death, according to Northwestern Professor Alec Klein, director of the Medill Innocence Project. Del Prete awaits a hearing expected in December as part of her federal appeal.
Maura Possley, deputy press secretary for the Illinois Attorney General, said, “Because there are personal medical records involved, we had to act cautiously and ask the court to rule. Of course, if any documents are put into the court record, they will be accessible to the public.”
Garvey, Del Prete’s attorney, said she plans to enter into evidence what she considers relevant medical records, which she said could include MRI and CT scans.
Garvey and Blegen introduced scientific and medical research surrounding shaken-baby syndrome as evidence in Del Prete’s federal habeas petition filed more than two years ago. Since her conviction, many experts have called into question whether the triad of shaken-baby syndrome symptoms—bleeding behind the eyes, brain bleeding and brain swelling—can solely identify the cause of an infant’s injuries or death.
Court records indicate that Isabella experienced retinal bleeding and brain bleeding after she stopped breathing under Del Prete’s care. However, the infant displayed no outward signs of abuse, according to hospital records.
Isabella’s father, Richard, declined to comment about the case.