In the project’s first published shaken-baby syndrome investigation, Medill students unearth old records, sources that shed new light on the circumstances of an infant’s death
SPOTLIGHT ON SHAKEN-BABY SYNDROME
By Mitchell Armentrout, Timna Axel, Lynne Fort, Janice Janeczko, Erin Kim, Valerie King, Joseph Lumley, Safiya Merchant, Ashley Powell and Miranda Viglietti
Medill Innocence Project
Published: Dec. 11, 2012
Updated: Dec. 20, 2012
Twenty hours after a 10-month-old infant was airlifted in critical condition to Lutheran General Children’s Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill., a doctor examined his damaged eyes through a hand-held lens, identifying the telltale signs of what is known as shaken-baby syndrome. What could not be foreseen were significant developments in the medical understanding of this form of child abuse over the next 18 years, which cast doubt on the infant’s diagnosis and the criminal proceedings that followed.
A day care owner in the suburbs of Chicago was accused of violently shaking the infant in what, in 1994, appeared to be a clear-cut case of abuse. But an investigation by the Medill Innocence Project raises serious questions about her conviction. Extensive interviews and wide-ranging records show it may have been impossible for authorities to have determined precisely when the crime occurred or who committed the act. Or there may have been no crime.
At the center of this case is convicted murderer Pamela Jacobazzi, a petite 57-year-old former babysitter who taught Catechism class at her local Catholic church before she was accused of shaking Matthew Czapski, leading to his death more than a year later, in 1995.
Back then, shaken-baby syndrome was a largely uncontested diagnosis associated with a triad of symptoms: brain bleeding, brain swelling and bleeding within the eyes. When all three signs are detected in an infant, authorities often accuse the last caregiver of abusing that child, believing the symptoms surface instantly and catastrophically.
But a slew of medical studies have emerged in recent years, challenging the very foundation of shaken-baby syndrome. These studies show that the triad of symptoms associated with this form of child abuse can be attributed to other, less sinister causes, including when a child falls. As medical experts increasingly mount a challenge to the traditional understanding of shaken-baby syndrome, the inevitable question arises: Are mothers, fathers, nannies, babysitters, day care workers and others in prisons for crimes they did not commit based on outdated medical science?
Advances in the medical science behind shaken-baby syndrome in recent years have led some appeals courts to overturn convictions. For instance, a Wisconsin former day care worker, Audrey Edmunds, spent more than a decade in prison when she was released in 2008. In her case, an expert from the original trial came forward and reversed himself, saying the infant could have experienced a lucid interval, or period when she seemed well, before falling ill again. Earlier this year, an Arizona man, Drayton Witt, was set free after serving time for allegedly shaking his infant son in 2000.
For this article, the Medill Innocence Project consulted with numerous medical experts and studies conducted over the past several years, interviewed Jacobazzi family members, neighbors and former clients, submitted five Freedom of Information Act requests and obtained thousands of pages of court records, police reports as well as hospital, pediatric, medical examiner, children and family services and property documents. The Medill Innocence Project found that:
–Eye injuries that used to be considered proof of child abuse at the time of Jacobazzi’s trial are known today to result from accidental trauma and certain medical conditions. The ophthalmologist who diagnosed Matthew in 1994 with “shaken injury” is one of several experts interviewed who now acknowledge that such symptoms may arise from non-abusive causes.
–Research into the onset of symptoms after brain trauma has raised doubts about how accurately doctors can pinpoint when trauma was inflicted. Recent studies have shown infants can experience a lucid interval–a temporary period of well-being–after suffering a fatal head injury. Experts say Matthew may have developed slow bleeding in his brain that did not become apparent until hours or days later when he lost consciousness and was rushed to the hospital. As a result, experts interviewed for this article say they cannot pinpoint Matthew’s trauma to the time he was under Jacobazzi’s care.
–Biomechanical studies have called into question whether it is physically possible for a person to shake an infant to death. Experts say it was not possible for Jacobazzi, at 115 pounds, to physically shake Matthew, who was 21 pounds, to death, especially given that his neck and spine were undamaged.
–Some experts question how Jacobazzi could have been convicted, given what they view as the uncertainty of Matthew’s condition. Experts say the child’s pediatric records, which were only mentioned in passing at Jacobazzi’s trial, indicated he appeared to have suffered from internal bleeding, while CT scans and a slide of brain tissue may have revealed a slow bleed from an old head injury that remained undetected until he was rushed to the hospital on the day he was under Jacobazzi’s care.
The majority of experts interviewed agree that Matthew’s death was the result of some kind of trauma but they disagree about what caused that trauma, when the trauma occurred and to what degree preexisting medical conditions contributed to his death.
“This lady is probably sitting in jail for no reason,” said Darinka Mileusnic-Polchan, an associate professor of pathology at the University of Tennessee Medical Center and the medical examiner for Knox and Anderson counties in Tennessee who reviewed Matthew’s medical records at the request of the Medill Innocence Project. “Why anyone focused on the babysitter, I don’t understand.”
Matthew’s family declined to comment for this article, as did Joseph Ruggiero, chief of the criminal division of the DuPage County State’s Attorney’s Office. Authorities at the Bartlett Police Department did not respond to multiple interview requests.
Jacobazzi was convicted by a jury of first-degree murder on May 18, 1999, and sentenced to 32 years in prison. She has been incarcerated at Lincoln Correctional Center in Lincoln, Ill., since December 2000 and is expected to be released on parole in May 2015.
After losing a series of appeals, she is seeking a new trial; an evidentiary hearing is scheduled in May to consider her request. In May 2011, the Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois Springfield took on Jacobazzi’s case and has assisted her lead attorney, Anthony Sassan, recruiting medical experts to testify at her upcoming hearing.
In a recent prison interview with the Medill Innocence Project, Jacobazzi said, “I want to emphasize that I am not guilty and I had nothing to do with his death. I have sympathy for any loss. I understand what a loss is, and I have even lost my life in here.”