Shaken Baby Syndrome convictions rely on junk science and tunnel vision

As we have reported, the reliability of forensic evidence is increasingly questioned; and Shaken Baby Syndrome convictions rely on junk science and tunnel vision, writes Chris Brook* in this extract from his latest blog.

Earlier this month, Jesse Vinaccia was sentenced to 8.5 years jail for supposedly shaking to death his then girlfriend’s 17 week old son. The number of statements made by the expert witnesses during the trial that lacked any scientific foundation are too many to document in one blog post.

Dr. Jo Tully, Deputy Director of the Victorian Forensic Paediatric Medical Service at the Royal Children’s and Monash Children’s hospitals, wrote in her report that ‘The presence of sudden unexplained collapse, intracranial haemorrhages, retinal haemorrhages and cerebral hypoxic ischaemic injury in an infant indicates head trauma that was almost certainly caused by acceleration−deceleration and rotational forces.’

At trial, Tully stated that ‘When you have the pattern of subdural haemorrhage, retinal haemorrhage and encephalopathy seen in Kaleb, then I do not believe there is a medical controversy about that diagnosis, no.’

insufficient evidence

Never mind that one of the world’s premier medical evidence review organisations, the Swedish SBU, made an exhaustive two year review of all the literature and found that there was insufficient evidence to support such a diagnosis. Let’s just ignore that shall we? Not even mention it to the jury. No controversy here! No reasonable doubts! Those Swedes are being unreasonable! They don’t even constitute a controversy! Why mention the Swedes when we can draw on confession studies (see below) about which we have no expertise and know next to nothing! The Swedes are irrelevant and the jury does not need to hear about them! No mind that this was by far the most comprehensive review of the literature pertaining to Shaken Baby Syndrome made anywhere in the world!

The evidence of the experts against Jesse Vinaccia is not corrupt. But the fact that the experts are convinced of guilt, and the fact that they are convinced that they are fighting for helpless infants, leads to what I like to call ‘noble cause bias’, which leads to confirmation bias whereby they use very, very low quality evidence to support their views on shaken baby syndrome, and ignore all evidence that contradicts their view. Tunnel vision.

* Chris Brook is a scientist with a legal background, who is concerned about the way that science is mis-understood and mis-used in our criminal justice system.

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2 Responses to Shaken Baby Syndrome convictions rely on junk science and tunnel vision

  1. Chris says:

    Hi Brian,
    your question of which experts know what they are talking about and which do not goes to the heart of forensic science problems. Experts are allowed to give their opinion, when they are supposed to inform the court about the science. Sometimes their opinion has no basis in science, but they are allowed to give that opinion anyway, and this opinion is very persuasive to the jury, even though it is unsubstantiated.

    As an expert witness, Jo Tully is an ‘officer of the court’ who is supposed to provide the court with objective information about these brain injuries. She said that she believes the brain injuries can only occur through shaking. But she neglects to say that the most thorough and comprehensive review done anywhere in the world to look into whether her belief has any evidentiary support, found that it did not. It found that there was no scientific basis to her belief. She has an obligation to the court to point that out very clearly. Expert testimony should be about science and evidence, not opinion and belief.

  2. Brian Johnston says:

    Are we supposed to believe that in the above case there were no haemorrhages and no cerebral injury. It just happened on its own or did not happen at all.
    I accept that Dr Jo Tully may be correct and what jury would know enough to say she is wrong.
    Some experts do know what they are talking about. Which ones?
    I am sure some cases are wrong and that Chris Brook raises valid points.
    I do not have faith in the justice/jury system.

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