Jus­tice for abused chil­dren

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY JOHN J. MCCARTHY The writer, the state’s at­tor­ney for Mont­gomery County, has been a prose­cu­tor for more than 35 years.

Shaken baby syn­drome is not a dis­puted di­ag­no­sis. It is not “shaken sci­ence,” as it was la­beled in The Post’s two-part se­ries in March 2015. Pros­e­cu­tors fight ev­ery day for truth and jus­tice. We work with cred­i­ble ex­perts to make sure we un­der­stand the sci­ence so that we can pur­sue the right out­come — whether that be a guilty con­vic­tion or a de­ci­sion not to pros­e­cute for lack of ev­i­dence.

Shaken baby syn­drome is a firmly es­tab­lished med­i­cal di­ag­no­sis, a sub­set of abu­sive head trauma, that de­scribes a con­stel­la­tion of brain in­juries caused by the di­rect ap­pli­ca­tion of force to an in­fant or young child that re­sults in phys­i­cal in­jury to the baby’s head. The mech­a­nisms for abu­sive head trauma in­clude shak­ing and blunt force im­pact or a com­bi­na­tion of both. No cred­i­ble doc­tor or sci­en­tist can dis­agree that abu­sive head trauma kills chil­dren.

Over the past year, through a se­ries of pros­e­cu­tions, my of­fice in Mont­gomery County has fought the mis­per­cep­tion that shaken baby syn­drome is not a real sci­en­tific di­ag­no­sis:

In State v. Moussa Sis­soko, the de­fense asked the court to pre­clude the state’s ex­pert wit­nesses from tes­ti­fy­ing that a 3-month-old died of shaken baby syn­drome. The court con­cluded that the opin­ions ten­dered by the state’s ex­perts were gen­er­ally ac­cepted in the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity and that they of­fered opin­ions that were based on rea­son­able sci­en­tific anal­y­sis as well as the facts avail­able to them. The de­fen­dant was con­victed by a judge of first-de­gree mur­der and child abuse re­sult­ing in death. Sis­soko got 50 years of a sus­pended life term.

In State v. Gail Dob­son, the court de­nied the de­fen­dant’s mo­tion to ex­clude the state’s ex­perts from tes­ti­fy­ing re­gard­ing the med­i­cal di­ag­no­sis of abu­sive head trauma. The de­fen­dant was con­victed by a jury of sec­ond-de­gree mur­der and child abuse re­sult­ing in death for killing a 9-month-old in her care. Dob­son was given 20 years of a 30-year sen­tence.

In State v. Adou Koua­dio, a jury con­victed the de­fen­dant of sec­ond-de­gree mur­der and child abuse re­sult­ing in death for killing his 7-weekold son. Koua­dio re­ceived 40 years, the max­i­mum for child abuse re­sult­ing in death.

Sis­soko and Dob­son were re­tri­als; the de­fen­dants pre­vi­ously had been found guilty of mur­der, but at post-con­vic­tion, the de­fen­dants called upon a cadre of ex­perts for the pur­pose of dis­cred­it­ing shaken baby syn­drome. Th­ese de­fense ex­perts in­cluded in­di­vid­u­als rep­ri­manded by their own med­i­cal boards and those who put forth the­o­ries not based in medicine and sci­ence. The de­fense ex­perts have med­i­cal de­grees but of­ten tes­tify out­side their area of ex­per­tise. They write ar­ti­cles and speak at con­fer­ences. They present well. But they fail to of­fer ju­ries full in­for­ma­tion about the com­pli­cated process that goes into di­ag­nos­ing abu­sive head trauma.

For­tu­nately, courts of law have re­jected some of the de­fense the­o­ries. In Sis­soko and Dob­son, the courts did not al­low wit­nesses to tes­tify about cer­tain al­ter­na­tive causes of death. Fur­ther, the courts con­cluded that cer­tain al­ter­na­tive the­o­ries were not gen­er­ally ac­cepted and could not ac­count for the death of th­ese chil­dren. Ju­ries have re­jected al­ter­nate med­i­cal hy­pothe­ses that fall short of ex­plain­ing the cat­a­strophic in­juries suf­fered.

The fact that there has been a con­certed ef­fort to un­der­mine the real medicine be­hind abu­sive head trauma flies in the face of the search for jus­tice. We must make sure that the truth pre­vails and that those who abuse our chil­dren are held ac­count­able.

Please join us in our ef­fort to pro­tect the most vul­ner­a­ble mem­bers of our so­ci­ety.

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