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A controversial stance on shaken baby syndrome upends forensic science

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Friday, May 4, 2018 9:39 PM

Dr. John Plunkett was 70 when he died in April. He was a forensic pathologist from Minnesota and one of the most influential skeptics of the concept of shaken baby syndrome.

In 2016, Plunkett received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Innocence Network for his work on behalf of people he believed had been wrongly convicted of child abuse or murder by shaking. Many convictions have been overturned on appeal – some sources say hundreds. Plenty of other accused people, based on testimony by Plunkett and like-minded colleagues, have been found innocent at trial.

To some, Plunkett is a hero; to others, a villain. A tribute by Radley Balko, published on April 10 in The Washington Post, reminded me of something I’d forgotten: In his early days of activism, Plunkett was unsuccessfully prosecuted for “false swearing” (similar to perjury) after he testified in defense of an Oregon woman charged with shaking a child.

According to SBS theory, shaking is the only possible cause of three autopsy findings known as “the triad” – brain swelling, bleeding around the brain and bleeding at the back of the eyes. When the theory became popular in the 1990s, I believed it. So did Plunkett.

I don’t believe in it anymore, but Plunkett was way ahead of me. He was among the first to dismiss the theory as bogus.

I’m still struggling with the ramifications of shaking. I’m still trying to figure out what I do and do not know. I think it’s more likely than not that some of the people Plunkett testified for were guilty. I think it approaches certainty that others were innocent. I don’t know which ones, and neither does anybody else.

The controversy over SBS has become one of the most heated in all of forensic medicine. Some forensic pathologists and other medical experts still believe in SBS; an increasing number of others do not. The ugly battle has been fueled by a poisonous brew of flawed science, feuding experts and recanted opinions. Opposing camps attack each other with a viciousness that’s unprofessional, unseemly and counterproductive.

The growing realization that the constellation of injuries once thought diagnostic of shaking can be caused not only by non-inflicted injuries but by natural processes, including infections, bleeding disorders, seizures, brain blood clots, and some inherited conditions has tarnished forensic pathology in the eyes of the public, the press and the courts.

The good news is that when medical examiners find the triad at autopsy today, the rush to judgment isn’t as swift and relentless as it once was. Most forensic pathologists are less dogmatic about shaking than they used to be. They at least consider and test for other possible explanations.

John Plunkett had as much to do with tamping down shaken baby dogma as anyone, and for that I say, “Well done.”

Plunkett was absolute in his beliefs. “There’s no such thing (as SBS),” he told a reporter for the American Bar Association’s journal. “It doesn’t exist.”

For many forensic pathologists, such a statement is a call to battle. But Plunkett wasn’t cruel to those who disagreed. He epitomized an admonition often repeated by my forensic pathology mentor, Dr. Charles Hirsch: “We can disagree without being disagreeable.”

When he heard of Plunkett’s death, one forensic pathologist said, “I didn’t agree with his rather absolutist position on the shaken baby thing, but I have never met a more ethical, honest and compassionate man.”

Anybody would be proud of such a eulogy.

Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, served as La Plata County coroner from 2003-12. She now lives in Florida and Maryland. Reach her at chuser@durangoherald.com.

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