There used to something close to a medical consensus that certain patterns of injuries can only be caused by shaking. In particular, a “triad”—swelling of the brain, bleeding on the brain’s surface, and bleeding behind the retinas—was believed to be solid proof that a baby had been abused in this way. The theory was put forward in the early 1970s by doctors trying to explain the deaths of infants and children with no outward signs of abuse. The diagnosis soon became accepted as scientific fact and has since been used to convict hundreds of people of harming or killing children.Horrible cases make bad law. Jurors, confronted with the death of such young and innocent little people, wanted to punish someone, and the pseudo-science of Shaken Baby Syndrome gave them a way to do so.
But over the past 20 years, a body of new research has shown how diseases, genetic conditions and accidents—including short falls—can produce the same constellation of injuries. As a result, faith in shaken baby syndrome is unraveling.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended in 2009 that doctors stop using the term. A 2015 investigation by the Washington Post found at least 16 shaken baby syndrome murder convictions that have been overturned.
On the other hand some of these babies probably were abused, which makes the question complicated; scientists no longer believe in a simple test for abuse by shaking, so everything is up in the air and the freedom of some innocent people may also lead to some baby shakers getting away with murder. But honest science is like that.
Incidentally Dr. Norman Guthkelch, one of the originators of this diagnosis, gets one of my coveted Public Mind Change awards; Slate reports that he
recently stated that it is “high time every case of a parent in [prison] for this had his or her case reviewed" because “we went badly off the rails ... on this matter.”