Grant purposed for finding relief for inmates wrongfully accused of shaken baby syndrome

U of M professors look for fair trials, provide credible support for defendants

The Universtiy of Michigan Law School clinic recieves $250,000 grant from U.S. Department of Justice.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Parents and caregivers who were wrongfully convicted of child abuse involving evidence of shaken baby syndrome may find relief with a new grant.

The U.S. Department of Justice awarded the Michigan Innocence Clinic with a nearly $250,000 grant to put toward finding relief for clients who may have been wrongfully convicted of shaken baby syndrome.

SBS has been used as a general diagnoses based on specific medical symptoms that appeared to clearly indicate evidence of abuse, according to University of Michigan. Symptoms have since then been uncovered connecting evidence to birth defects, not to SBS, which was initially thought to be the cause. 

The clinic sent out 11 applications to inmates who were convicted based on potentially flawed SBS evidence, and then determine if discredited science was used and if the inmate presents a viable innocence claim.

Reviewing the Case

According to Imran Syed, assistant director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic, only 1 percent of cases are accepted.  

“We have to see a path to litigate a case and before we accept the case, it goes through a long period of investigations,” Syed said. “These cases involve a great deal of scientific testimony, reports and research that requires considerable time and effort to evaluate and litigate properly.”

According to Syed, cases that are taken are generally those who have already been convicted and have served their first round of appeals. Then they go to court and open up a new appeal.

Syed said investigations of these cases may last up to four years, or more, depending on the circumstances. 

Supreme Court Support

The Supreme Court ruling in 2015 was a motivating force that deepened the clinic’s focus on SBS cases.

According to the university, the ruling in People v. Ackley inspired the unanimous decision by the court that SBS remains a controversial diagnosis and that defendants have the right to present favorable experts at trial. 

The first SBS case was exonerated in 2010 when client Julie Baumer was retried and found not guilty.  Since then the clinic has filed post-conviction applications to find potential relief for those convicted in state and federal court. 

Righting the wrong

The main goal is to present a fair trial where the defendant has responsible scientists who are able to present accurate evidence, according to Syed.  

He said that because of the drought in the defendants' resources, past cases involving SBS were presented unfairly. The lack of support credible doctors and engineers could have provided left the jury uninformed, thus misleading the jury.  

He hopes that through this grant, they can correct things that have gone wrong in the past. His long-term goal is to present responsible science to juries. He says that as long as relevant science is being presented to them, only then will a fair trial exist.   

How the grant will help

According to the University of Michigan Law School, the grant will help absorb the expenses used for hiring an off-site consultant to serve as the clinic’s SBS fellow, and the additional experts required to review and litigate SBS-related cases.

“We have been able to accomplish a lot on behalf of our few SBS clients to this point,” Syed said. “But with a dozen or so potentially promising cases now on our radar, we simply don’t have the capacity to handle these cases without some specialized help.”

Syed said it’s really unfair to the defendant that only one side of story is being told.

“Science is only as perfect as the people behind it,” he said.  

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