Six years ago, in a tidy home day care on the edge of a cornfield, with angel figurines in the flower beds and an American flag over the driveway, 9-month-old Trevor Ulrich stopped breathing. He had contusions on his scalp and bleeding on the surface of his swollen brain.
Within weeks, day-care owner Gail Dobson was charged with killing the baby in a fit of frustration at the business she had run for 29 years along a rural stretch of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The Sunday school teacher and grandmother of three was convicted of second-degree murder in 2010, eight months shy of her 54th birthday, and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
“To me, she is a monster,” Trevor’s mother told a local television reporter in 2013. “She is a cold-hearted killer.”
But what prosecutors called a clear-cut case of child abuse is now mired in doubt. Two doctors working on Dobson’s appeal last year argued that the scientific testimony used against her was fundamentally flawed. A judge overturned the conviction and ordered a new trial, finding that a jury hearing that argument could have had “a reasonable doubt” about her guilt.
Doctors for the prosecution said Trevor had been a victim of Shaken Baby Syndrome, a 40-year-old medical diagnosis long defined by three internal conditions: swelling of the brain, bleeding on the surface of the brain and bleeding in the back of the eyes. The diagnosis gave a generation of doctors a way to account for unexplained head injuries in babies and prosecutors a stronger case for criminal intent when police had no witnesses, no confessions and only circumstantial evidence.
It has also led to more than a decade of fierce debate: Testing has been unable to show whether violent shaking can produce the bleeding and swelling long attributed to the diagnosis, and doctors have found that accidents and diseases can trigger identical conditions in babies.
Challenges to the diagnosis have spilled into courts on two continents. In 2005, Britain’s Court of Appeal found that the head and eye injuries alone were not absolute proof of abuse and, in Sweden last year, the Supreme Court ruled that the scientific support for the diagnosis had “turned out to be uncertain.”
In the United States, 16 convictions have been overturned since 2001, including three last year. In Illinois, a federal judge who recently freed a mother of two after nearly a decade in prison called Shaken Baby Syndrome “more an article of faith than a proposition of science.”
Despite the uncertainty, prosecutors are still using the diagnosis to help prove criminal cases beyond a “reasonable doubt” against hundreds of parents and caregivers.