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Daycare worker acquitted of murder in Shaken Baby Syndrome case

In February 2003, 9-month-old Vance Johnson was dropped off at the home of Dianne Scribner and placed in a crib. Mrs. Scribner called 911 a few hours later when she discovered that the child was not breathing. That night, the police awakened her and her husband to ask accusing questions.

At autopsy, the child had brain swelling, a subdural hematoma, and retinal hemorrhages—but no bruising, broken bones, or other sign of trauma.

Prosecution witnesses said that the child must have been violently shaken minutes before becoming unconscious. And Mrs. Scribner was the only adult on the scene. Physicians from Harvard and the University of Minnesota said that the “shaken baby syndrome” is well accepted.

Defense witnesses, including a neurosurgeon who testified pro bono, said that the child had prior medical conditions, including a brain injury, that could have caused his death.

A juror said that none of the jurors understood the medical testimony and that he had to throw it out because it was conflicting. “It was almost like a witch hunt right from the beginning. There were no marks, just the medical testimony that she must have done something.”

“It’s not just a matter of looking at the evidence we heard, but also being reasonable,” said another juror.

Mrs. Scribner, a 57-year-old grandmother who has raised eight children and provided daycare for 28 years, took the stand in her own defense. “How would anyone feel, knowing you were innocent?” Legal bills of more than $100,000 wiped out most of the couple’s retirement savings and forced them to sell their home. Her semi-retired 67-year-old husband had to go back to work. She said the child’s death may have been caused by the injury that left healing signs in the brain: “I just know that it didn’t have anything to do with me.”

Marjorie Hogan, a pediatrician and member of the University of Minnesota child-maltreatment consult team, called the acquittal “dismaying.” She felt the defense witnesses’ testimony was “misleading.”

Defense attorney Douglas Olson responded that “there are many knowledgeable doctors who dispute what is viewed as accepted dogma…. This woman is innocent and never harmed the child. That’s why this whole theory needs to be reconsidered.”

Most such cases result in a conviction. This time, one of the jurors had lost a child to sudden infant death syndrome, and another had nearly had a child seized by authorities after she accidentally dislocated her shoulder.

See Star Tribune (Minneapolis), Aug. 14, 2004, and Saint Paul Pioneer Press, Aug. 7, 2004.

Additional information:

Uscinski R. The Shaken Baby Syndrome. J Am Phys Surg, Fall 2004.

Clemetson CAB. Is it “Shaken Baby,” or Barlow’s Disease Variant?. J Am Phys Surg, Fall 2004.

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