Del Prete awaits Chicago hearing in her shaken-baby syndrome case
By Lauryn Schroeder
The Medill Justice Project
A federal judge ruled today “no reasonable jury” would find Jennifer Del Prete, a Chicago-area day care worker, guilty of murder, citing new evidence and medical science that cast doubt on whether she was given her constitutional right to a fair trial.
In his detailed and strongly worded 97-page opinion, U.S. District Court Judge Matthew F. Kennelly said it was the court’s responsibility to determine whether a reasonable juror, who heard all of the evidence, would find Del Prete guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
“The answer to that question is a rather resounding no,” Kennelly wrote.
The federal judge’s opinion is considered rare because Del Prete was convicted in a state court, and federal courts usually give deference to state courts’ decisions. Del Prete also had to overcome a procedural default when she did not raise at the state level one of her claims for ineffective assistance of counsel. The federal judge wrote, “She contends, however, that the Court should excuse the default and consider the merits of her claim under the ‘fundamental miscarriage of justice’ exception.” Based on the judge’s ruling, Del Prete overcame that hurdle.
Daniel Rufo, one of Del Prete’s attorneys, noted that meeting that standard is reserved for only an extraordinary case.
Kennelly’s opinion comes after a series of in-depth hearings over the past 13 months during which the court reviewed new evidence and heard testimony of many expert witnesses in connection with the first-degree murder conviction of Del Prete, 43, who was accused of violently shaking a 3 ½-month-old infant on Dec. 27, 2002. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2005. Del Prete filed a habeas corpus petition in 2010, claiming she did not receive a fair trial and her constitutional rights were violated.
Today’s decision appears to be a significant step in Del Prete’s case and allows the court to fully reexamine her claims of ineffective counsel in her original trial. In his ruling, the judge cited, among other things, the child’s symptoms of chronic brain bleeding and the possibility the infant had experienced a lucid interval before becoming unresponsive, which would have made it difficult to pinpoint the timing of an injury specifically enough to identify a perpetrator.
“We’re very pleased with the judge’s decision and we’re hopeful that he’ll rule similarly in future proceedings,” said Patrick W. Blegen, Del Prete’s lead attorney.
Among the new evidence Kennelly cited in today’s ruling, he included a decade-old letter written by a police detective in Del Prete’s case discovered by The Medill Justice Project through a Freedom of Information Act request. In the 2003 letter, Police Commander Kenneth Kroll said the forensic pathologist who conducted the infant’s autopsy questioned whether the day care worker had violently shaken the child in what is known as shaken-baby syndrome or abusive head trauma. Defense attorneys learned of the letter when it was published as part of a Medill Justice Project investigation.
Kennelly also referred to the prosecution’s reliance on the expert testimony of one doctor in the original trial in state court. In the federal court hearings, he noted, experts for both sides rejected several aspects of that testimony and undercut the doctor’s conclusion that the infant’s injuries would have been immediate and, thus, the last caregiver with the child, Del Prete, was responsible.
Attorneys will argue whether an evidentiary hearing is needed to consider her claim of ineffective counsel at a status hearing scheduled for Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. in downtown Chicago. The judge could not be reached for comment; it is not known when he will make a decision, but he could order Del Prete’s release if he finds she did not receive a fair trial and the state chooses not to retry her.
Officials with the Illinois Attorney General’s Office could not be reached for comment.