PBS’s Frontline Exposes Wrongful Convictions For Child Abuse and Shaken Baby Syndrome

In an eye-opening new Frontline segment, The Child Cases, PBS and its partners present a critical look into “child cases” and what goes wrong from a scientific and prosecutorial standpoint when innocent people are convicted of abusing and killing children. This segment tells the story of one man on death row for killing a child who appears to have suffered a bleeding disorder, a woman who sat in jail for over a year before she was found not-guilty of killing her child, and a daycare provider who served a prison sentence before being released on appeal. The narrator interviews medical examiners who work on child death cases, attorneys, as well as family members and witnesses to these cases. This segment is one of several stories about faulty science that leads to the conviction of innocent people for child deaths.

The media is paying keen attention to these cases and are highlighting the problems when government forensic medical examiners evaluate child death cases at autopsy. These examiners are often not board certified. They rarely read medical records for the children. And they often feel aligned with the prosecuting agencies that they submit their information to, to the detriment of objectivity. In addition, child autopsies are as emotional as it gets. The results include mistaken observations, bias against the caretakers, the presumption of abuse, and, ultimately, wrongful convictions. NPR also discusses these issues in Child Cases: Guilty Until Proven Innocent.

As a an attorney who represents parents in child abuse cases in the trial court and on appeal, I am happy to see that these mistakes are coming to light outside of the courtroom. Practitioners know that medical examiners are aligned with prosecuting agencies but courts often look away as a result of the system’s design. Bias must be exposed because it taints everything: from beliefs, to impressions, to diagnoses and findings. Science without objectivity is far worse than no science at all. In these cases, scientists are arming prosecutors with lies that only they can disprove.

Lauren K Johnson is a criminal defense and parent’s rights attorney who represents clients charged with child abuse and neglect in criminal and juvenile court (CPS cases).