Students seeking medical documents in shaken-baby syndrome case investigation
By Alison Flowers
The Medill Justice Project
The Medill Justice Project has won a six-month battle for records in federal court after a judge granted access to brain scans of an infant whose death the organization is investigating as part of a former Chicago-area day care worker’s first-degree murder conviction.
Since last March, Medill undergraduate students in a class supported by The Medill Justice Project have been probing a 2002 case in which Jennifer Del Prete in Romeoville, Ill., was accused of violently shaking a 3 ½-month-old infant, causing fatal head injuries in what is known as shaken-baby syndrome. Del Prete, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2005, maintains her innocence. Given advances in medicine and science over the past decade, the detailed medical images, including MRIs and CT scans, may provide new insight into how the infant died.
“This is a victory for open government,” said Alec Klein, director of The Medill Justice Project, an organization at Northwestern University which examines potentially wrongful murder convictions. “The medical records will hopefully shed light on this tragic case.”
In Chicago, U.S. District Court Judge Matthew F. Kennelly penned an order Monday allowing for the release of most of the evidence used in Del Prete’s recent hearing in her ongoing federal appeal. Last August, Northwestern, on behalf of The Medill Justice Project, then called the Medill Innocence Project, intervened in the case, arguing that it had a right as a journalistic enterprise to an open judicial system and inform the public. Kennelly accepted the organization’s petition to intervene in the federal case but denied the university’s motion to access the records, ruling in favor of the privacy interests of the deceased infant’s family. But in Kennelly’s latest ruling, he wrote, after “repeated requests from the Medill Innocence Project,” he will allow attorneys in the case to release the records now that the evidence has been presented in court, provided certain identifying information and images are redacted, such as the medical information about the deceased infant’s mother. Kennelly declined to comment for this article.
Maura Possley, spokesperson for the Illinois Attorney General’s office which had filed the motion for the protective order, supported the judge’s ruling to open the records. “We were particularly concerned about the medical records of the mother,” she said. “The court went through the records and determined which are appropriate to release.”
Pat Blegen, one of Del Prete’s attorneys, argued in court last month that Del Prete can’t be tied to the infant’s death in part because the infant had been experiencing a chronic brain bleed, which caused a cascade of other head trauma, which likely started before she started caring for the infant. The ER physician and defense expert at trial in 2005 identified the chronic bleeding, but got the timing wrong, Blegen said at the December hearing.
Ari Telisman, one of the assistant attorney generals defending Del Prete’s conviction, said in court that the infant’s brain bleeding was benign and not the cause of her death. Del Prete was, he said.
“She never smiled again,” Telisman said about the infant.
Since Del Prete’s conviction eight years ago, many experts have called into question whether the triad of shaken-baby syndrome symptoms—bleeding within the eyes, brain bleeding and brain swelling—can solely identify the cause of an infant’s injuries or death. The infant in Del Prete’s case showed no overt signs of abuse, such as bruising or injuries to the neck, and several experts recently testified she was suffering from serious brain conditions before losing consciousness under Del Prete’s supervision.