NY Questioning Scientific Validity of Shaken-Baby Syndrome

An appellate court in New York unanimously affirmed a decision that granted defendant Rene Bailey’s motion to vacate her second degree murder conviction from 2002, based on newly discovered evidence that questions the scientific validity of shaken-baby syndrome, also known as shaken baby impact syndrome.  The court concluded that "a significant and legitimate debate in the medical community has developed in the past ten years over whether infants [and toddlers] can be fatally injured through shaking alone, and whether other causes [such as short-distance falls] may mimic the symptoms traditionally viewed as indicating shaken baby or shaken impact syndrome." The decision causes a huge ripple in the waters of shaken baby cases in New York, as well as elsewhere, and can potentially affect thousands of people who are convicted of murder or assault in such cases.

A 2 ½ year old girl who Bailey cared for in her home day-care center died from a head injury, and at trial, Bailey asserted that the child, Brittney Sheets, had hit her head when she jumped or fell from a high chair while Bailey was not in the room. However, testimony from medical experts who opined that the injury could only have been caused by Bailey’s violent shaking was deemed credible by the jury, and supported the decision to convict her.

Adele Bernhard, a volunteer lawyer from a law clinic for indigent defendants at Pace University in Westchester County, argued that other explanations for the internal injuries suffered by the toddler had come to light by research over the past decade, including an accidental fall or an illness. Monroe County Court Judge James Piampiano found the research constituted newly discovered evidence which would probably have changed the outcome of Bailey’s trial if it was presented at the time. The Judge reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial, wherein the new scientific research on the potential cause of the Sheets’ death can be considered.  That decision is the subject of the affirmance on appeal.

Although other state appellate regions are not bound by the decision, they often rule similarly when the issue arises before them. In effect, this decision imposes a harsher burden on the prosecution in shaken-baby cases to prove a reliable scientific foundation for the experts’ scientific basis, or to prove the exact cause of the injury or death more certainly.

Sandray Doorley, the District Attorney for Monroe County, now has options that include a further appeal to the New York Court of Appeals, a new trial, a potential plea deal to a lesser charge, or to dismiss the indictment.

Lexis subscribers can access the opinion at:
People v Bailey, 2016 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 7389 (N.Y. App. Div. 4th Dep't Nov. 10, 2016)

Lexis Advance subscribers can find the opinion at: People v Bailey, 2016 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 7389 (N.Y. App. Div. 4th Dep't Nov. 10, 2016)

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